Star of africa, p.6
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       Star of Africa, p.6

           Scott Mariani
 

  ‘I had no idea it was so bad.’

  Gerber pulled a disgusted face. ‘Well now you have. Bring ’em on, I say. They want a fight, they’ll get a fight like they won’t believe. I’d rather be dead than wind up a hostage in some Somali stinkpit, or sold as a fuckin’ slave to work in a damn copper mine.’

  Jude’s head was still spinning from what Gerber had told him when he sat down to eat later with Mitch, Condor and another AB called Lang. ‘Hey, s’matter, English? You don’t think my jokes are funny any more?’ Mitch said in a mock-hurt voice after Jude failed to break up at some stupid crack. Jude admitted what was on his mind.

  ‘That old fart Gerber’s just looking to scare your Limey ass,’ Mitch said.

  ‘Can’t get it up no more, so he wants to play Platoon instead,’ laughed Condor. ‘Thinks he’s still in ’Nam. You know why they don’t issue weapons to merchant crews? So that trigger-happy dudes like Gerber can’t shoot the crap out of every bunch of poor schmuck fishermen that come within a thousand-yard range, and call it self-defence. Who’s gonna insure us for that?’

  Jude wasn’t sure. It had sounded pretty plausible the way Gerber described it.

  ‘That’s right, man, don’t listen to his cranky bullshit,’ said Lang, munching loudly on a bacon sandwich and spitting bits out as he talked. ‘Sure, the pirates might hit a vessel now and then, but we’re talking small trawlers and private yachts mostly. Few years back, they took a pop at a German naval tanker thinking she was a merchant and those Krauts chewed their asses up something terrible. I’ll bet ol’ Gerber didn’t tell you what happened last time a pirate crew touched an American ship, did he?’ Lang dragged his forefinger across his throat and smiled wickedly, bits of bacon stuck between his teeth. ‘I got two words for you. Navy SEALs.’

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘Let’s just say, our boys went home. The bad guys wound up as fish bait.’

  ‘These waters are safe as houses,’ Mitch said, ramming home the point. ‘Hell, safer. Naval destroyers patrol up and down the coastline the whole time. Thank your fellow Limeys for that one. We even so much as smell a pirate, all Cappy O’Keefe has to do is dial up UKMTO on the sat phone, and the cavalry’ll be all over us before you can say Jack Robinson.’

  ‘Who the fuck was Jack Robinson, anyway?’ Condor asked.

  ‘Fuck should I know?’ Mitch shot back at him.

  ‘Always wondered about that,’ Condor said absently.

  Jude already knew about United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, the clearing house that governed shipping security in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. But he still wasn’t entirely convinced.

  ‘Okay,’ he said, dubiously. ‘Then if we’re so safe and there’s no risk, then why do we keep the pirate cages locked all the time? And how come these attacks are still going on?’

  Mitch waved it away. ‘Chill, dude. Ain’t gonna happen to us.’

  Chapter 10

  The young woman’s eyes were wide with terror and pleading as she tried to scream out from behind the tape that covered her mouth. Her bleached hair was all awry, her hands tied, her blue chequered shop assistant’s uniform ripped at the neck from the struggle with her attacker who, presumably, had already wiped out the rest of her colleagues in his murderous spree.

  The hostage taker stood half-concealed behind her, using her body as a shield with one arm clamped tightly around her neck. Was he a terrorist, or just another crazy on the loose? It didn’t matter either way. He was the threat, and he had to be neutralised. He was wearing a black sweatshirt and his eyes were hidden by dark glasses that glinted in the morning sun. He was clutching a stubby pistol that was aimed over the woman’s shoulder and pointing at the hostage rescue team who had come to save her.

  Milliseconds counted. At any instant, a desperate man like this, all out of options and wild with panic, might turn the gun on her at point-blank range and blow her brains out.

  Brrrpp … Brrrpp. The ripping snort of two short bursts from the silenced submachine gun, punctuated by the clackclackclack of the weapon’s bolt and the tinkle of spent cartridge cases hitting the ground. The hostage’s left eye disappeared as the nine-millimetre bullets punched a jagged line from her throat up to her temple.

  Then silence. The smell of cordite drifted on the cold morning air. A small trickle of smoke oozed from each of the bullet holes. The hostage taker’s pistol was still pointing at the assembled HRT operators fifteen metres away.

  ‘Cease fire,’ Jeff Dekker said. ‘Make your weapon safe.’

  The shooter flicked on his safety catch and frowned at the woman he’d just killed.

  ‘Shit.’

  ‘Okay,’ Jeff said. ‘Your hostage is dead, and so are you, or maybe one of your teammates.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘Tell that to her kids.’ Jeff stepped up to the firing line and took the smoking subgun out of the shooter’s hands. ‘Ben? You want to give us a demonstration?’

  The shooter stepped aside, angry with himself and shaking his head. Without a word, Ben took the gun from Jeff, walked up to the line and waited for the buzzer. Jeff pressed the remote button. At the signal, almost too fast for the eye to follow, Ben had the weapon up to his shoulder and on target with a single burst.

  Brrrpp.

  The hostage taker’s sunglasses shattered into fragments. Shreds of high-density polyurethane foam flew from the back of his head and littered the grass like confetti. Less than three-quarters of a second from the buzzer, he wasn’t going to be harming any more innocents.

  Ben lowered the gun, made it safe and handed it back to Jeff, keeping the muzzle pointed downrange. ‘Something like that,’ he said to the first shooter, who was still shaking his head and staring in amazement at the tight grouping of holes between the bad guy’s eyes.

  It was just another morning at Le Val. The class were a group of twelve French police SWAT trainees who’d been sent out on a three-day instruction course in close-quarter shooting and hostage rescue tactics. The highly realistic, lifesize 3-D self-healing foam targets were a recent innovation Jeff had come up with, in conjunction with a Normandy plastic mouldings firm who couldn’t manufacture them fast enough to meet the demand from law enforcement and military training units all over Europe.

  ‘You want to break down for the group how you just did that?’ Jeff asked Ben.

  ‘We need to look beyond the accepted principles of combat shooting in order to become really fast and accurate,’ Ben told the class. ‘Forget what you’ve been taught about focusing on the sights of the weapon. And don’t think too much about it. When you’ve shot enough to develop the right reflexes, muscle memory will bring the firearm to alignment instantly and without conscious thought. Even at twenty-five metres we’ve found it’s possible to get good, solid hits in less time if you let the sights fuzz out and focus on the target instead. You’ll also have better peripheral vision awareness of hostage movement or additional threats. Okay?’

  ‘Okay,’ came the muttered replies from the group.

  ‘Let’s try it again,’ Jeff said.

  ‘Just like old times,’ Jeff said to Ben as the class broke up for lunch.

  Ben said nothing, because he knew Jeff was angling for him to stay on permanently. He didn’t want to commit to anything. His plans were unchanged: to wait a couple more days to let things settle down in Paris, return there to finish doing up the apartment, and go looking for an estate agent.

  But Ben privately couldn’t deny that, after a few days back at Le Val, it was beginning to feel like home again, almost as if he’d never left the place. Initially, he’d resisted Jeff’s invitation to get involved with the training side of things, and instead made himself useful elsewhere. He’d helped the decorators finish painting the new classroom building, driven into Valognes in the old Land Rover to fetch supplies, and mended part of the perimeter fence that had blown down. The rest of his time, he’d spent sitting by the fire in the farmhouse kitchen smoking cigarettes an
d reading with a glass of wine at his elbow, or revisiting his old running tracks through the wintry Normandy woodland with Storm trotting along at his heel. In the evenings, he and Jeff dined together and drank more wine and talked about everything except Ben’s coming back to work at Le Val.

  Tuesday Fletcher, the new recruit, was a dynamic addition to the team. He had a quick wit, a lively manner and a ready smile that dazzled away the wintry cold and drumming Normandy rain. Ben liked him at once, and watching him spatter cherry tomatoes for fun at six hundred metres with an L96 sniper rifle, he had no problem conceding to the younger man’s superior marksmanship skills.

  ‘Sorry to hear what happened on your selection,’ Ben said to him as they were packing the gear away in the armoury room.

  Tuesday shrugged. ‘Just one of those things. Would’ve been nice to have been the first black kid in the SAS.’

  ‘I always used to think it was wrong that we didn’t have any,’ Ben said.

  ‘Don’t know what they’re missing. We’re great for night ops. Nobody can see us coming in the dark,’ Tuesday joked.

  ‘Tuesday – is that a nickname?’

  ‘Nope. It’s what it says on my birth certificate.’

  ‘Seriously?’

  Tuesday laughed and gave another of his patented room-brighteners. ‘I was born Tuesday, March third, 1992. Mum said they called me that so I’d have a birthday every week instead of just once a year like all the other kids. Truth is, she wanted to call me Troy and Dad wanted Sam. After I was born they fought over it for six weeks, until they were about to get fined for not registering me quick enough. So they both caved in and just called me after the day of the week I popped out. If that hadn’t happened they’d still be fighting over it now. Stubbornness runs in the family.’

  Join the club, Ben thought.

  That got Ben back to thinking about his own family. Jude was on his mind a lot over those days, as he reflected about the past and all the regrets he had about the way he’d handled things. If there was a league table for fathers, they’d have to invent a new bottom place just for Ben. The only thing he’d ever given Jude was the birthright of his own wild temperament. Hardly much of a legacy to pass down from father to son.

  It was painful to contemplate all the ways he’d been such a letdown as a parent, just as it hurt to think about all the missing parts of their relationship. He’d never seen the boy grow up, never got to know him properly, or had the chance to do the things a father should do to bond with his child. He’d inherited Jude just as Jude had inherited him, two strangers brought together by a tragedy brutally foisted on them by the car crash that had ended the lives of Michaela and Simeon Arundel. Ben missed them both deeply, but he knew that Jude’s pain was deeper still and would never go away. Yet they’d barely ever talked about it. Ben regretted that too.

  He wished Jude could be here now. He blamed himself for having missed him before his departure, and was trying not to blame Jeff for not having told him sooner that Jude was at Le Val, even if he understood Jeff’s reasons. Then, of course, there was the undeniable fact that Ben hadn’t exactly made himself easy to get in touch with. But seven whole weeks! If he’d only known, he’d have been here. They could have spent that time together. Maybe tried to start again.

  Or maybe it would just have made things worse. He worried that it was too late to try and repair things between him and his son, just as it was probably too late for Ben to fix the profound rift between him and his ex-fiancée, Brooke Marcel. Ben already believed in his heart that Brooke would never speak to him again.

  If Jude never wanted to either, then Ben would just have to accept that, too.

  Chapter 11

  On the morning of the fourth day since leaving Salalah, the Svalgaard Andromeda completed its south-westerly route down the Yemeni coast and arrived dead on schedule at the Port of Djibouti. Under the watchful eye of the bosun and a sun so searingly hot that the sky was burned almost white, Jude and the rest of the crew laboured and sweated for most of the day unloading cargo. When the gruelling toil was finally done, word came down from the captain that they were free to hit port for a few hours that evening before setting out again the following morning.

  Condor and Mitch were first off the ship, in gleeful search of cheap beer and loose women – both of which, being old hands on the East Africa run, they knew exactly where to find in sufficient quantities to gorge themselves to the maximum. Even the dour-faced Scagnetti was smiling at the prospect of being let loose on land for a while.

  Jude resisted all invitations to come ashore and have a good time with a polite smile and a ‘That’s okay, you go and have fun.’ He spent the evening instead in his cabin, relaxing with a book. The next morning, he was predictably one of the only crew members who wasn’t suffering a thudding headache and queasy stomach from a serious night on the town. Nobody had been stabbed, robbed, or detained by the port police. Scagnetti appeared to have managed to go the whole night without getting into any bar brawls.

  The ship departed from Djibouti shortly after 9 a.m. and cruised back out into the infinite blue on a north-easterly bearing that would carry them around the Horn of Africa before turning south.

  Mid-afternoon, the first of that day’s incidents occurred.

  Jude was far forward on the cargo deck, one of a small party of mostly hungover and groaning ABs working to clear up after the previous day’s unloading, when he happened to glance over the rail at the expanse of ocean ahead, and thought he saw a dark, strangely angular shape bobbing on the surface of the water directly in the ship’s path. It was only visible for a fleeting moment; then it was gone. He blinked and went closer to the rail to take another look.

  Jude hadn’t been imagining things. As it turned out, what he’d seen was a discarded forty-foot steel shipping container apparently lost from another vessel, so waterlogged that it was floating too low on the surface to be picked up by the radar. He quickly alerted Ricky Marshall, the third mate, who relayed the information to the bridge, and the ship changed course a few degrees to avoid the potential hazard.

  Marshall was pleased with him, explaining that ships lost containers all the time, running into thousands a year worldwide, and often failed – illegally – to report them. While such floating debris posed no serious risk to the thick hulls of larger vessels like the Andromeda, it was always worth steering clear. ‘You’ve got good eyes,’ he said to Jude. ‘Like to take a tour of the bridge?’

  ‘Really?’ It would be the first time Jude had ever been up there, and he lit up at the offer.

  Marshall smiled at his excitement, and explained that especially observant ABs were often posted up on the bridge, as an extra pair of eyes always came in handy. ‘Plus,’ he added, ‘I hear you’re thinking of a naval career. You might be interested in seeing what goes on up there.’

  And so, novice able-bodied seaman Jude Arundel followed the third mate up the steps and walkways to pay his first visit to the real nerve-centre of the ship, where he was introduced in person to Captain O’Keefe. The captain was a large, bearded man with a red face and a disinterested manner, who thanked Jude vaguely for having spotted the floating container and didn’t seem to care one way or the other about Marshall showing him around. O’Keefe returned to the conversation he’d been having with Wilson, the chief mate, who had the wheel. Jude caught a whiff of a scent from Wilson that could have been cheap after-shave, but smelled more like bourbon.

  The bridge was the very top floor of the ship’s superstructure, accessible from an outer door and an inner hatch that led through to the rest of D Deck. It was shielded from the elements by tall windows that gave a commanding view for miles in every direction. On its roof was a railed open-air platform called the flying bridge, and extending some eighteen feet either side of it jutted steel observation walkways that overhung the ship’s sides, used for fine steering adjustments while docking.

  Inside the control room itself, Jude felt as if he was inside a giant greenhouse
. The deck seemed very far below, and so narrow as to create the illusion that the ship must be dangerously top-heavy and about to keel over on its side.

  ‘This is the conning station,’ Marshall said, showing Jude the bank of electronic equipment at the centre of the bridge. The second mate, Guzman, was lurking nearby, munching on a sandwich and ignoring them as he pored over his charts. ‘All these electronics are what we use for steering, nav and comm,’ Marshall explained. ‘Here you’ve got your GMDSS, short for Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which feeds continuous weather updates. And this here is the radar,’ he said, pointing at another screen, showing what looked like a greenish-hued circular clock face divided into quadrants, with a continually sweeping hand moving round the centre. ‘The data stream on the right tells you the speed of any vessels we get close to, and their CPA. That’s the Closest Point of Approach – basically how long before its path crosses ours. Keeps us out of trouble.’

  Jude was running his eye over the screens, drinking everything in. ‘This would be our position?’ he asked, pointing at a set of coordinates displayed on a readout.

  ‘That’s right. Updated continually via GPS. So we don’t lose our way.’

  ‘And that?’

  Marshall seemed happy to answer as many questions as this eager young sailor could fire his way. ‘That’s the EOT. Stands for Engine Order Telegraph. It’s how the bridge tells the engine room to alter our speed. The panel next to it, right there, is the watertight door indicator. Every time a hatch seal opens anywhere on board, it lights up, green for open, red for shut. Alerts us if anything’s open that shouldn’t be in heavy weather.’

  Fascinated by the wealth of equipment on board, Jude was about to ask more questions when the radar started to blip, drawing the attention of the mates. Wilson broke off from his conversation with the captain. The Guzzler swallowed the last of his sandwich and dragged his bulk over to the radar to take a look.

 
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