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Star of africa, p.7
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       Star of Africa, p.7

           Scott Mariani

  ‘Looks like a vessel coming right towards us, Cap,’ he said. ‘Three-point-six miles astern and closing fast. Moving it some.’

  O’Keefe frowned and came over to peer at the screen, together with Ricky Marshall. Jude moved in behind, so he could peek between them at the display. Maybe he was being audacious, he thought, but everyone’s attention was too fixed on the radar to take any notice of him. Onscreen, he could see a green dot moving towards the centre of the circle. As they watched, two smaller dots broke off from it.

  ‘That’s what I hoped we wouldn’t see,’ Guzman muttered. ‘It can only mean one thing.’

  ‘We’re going to have company,’ the captain said.

  Chapter 12

  Jude stared at the radar, remembering what Gerber had told him – how pirates no longer limited themselves to short-range raids from the coastline and now used stolen vessels as mother ships to patrol the whole ocean. ‘Are we under attack?’ he asked, unable to help himself from speaking out.

  Nobody replied. Ricky Marshall just glanced at him, his jaw clenched. A whole minute passed, then another. The little green dots kept on coming. The two smaller ones that had broken away seemed to be converging on the centre of the circle at a slightly faster rate.

  ‘Two-point-one miles, Cap,’ Guzman said, looking intently at O’Keefe.

  With an effort, Jude detached himself from the huddle at the radar and stepped over to the window. A large pair of binoculars was lying on a table. He picked them up. Again, the others were too focused on the screen to even notice him.

  Scanning the distant ocean through the powerful binocs, Jude could just about make out the incoming objects on the water. The larger of the three was still on the horizon and seemed to be a sizeable vessel, while the smaller two were coming in much faster, black dots against the blue with white water visible at their bows. The way they were bouncing over the waves told him they were speedboats, which must have launched from the mother ship.

  ‘They wouldn’t dare touch a US merchant vessel,’ Ricky Marshall said, but the expression on his face didn’t radiate confidence.

  ‘Course?’ grunted O’Keefe.

  ‘Two-twenty,’ Guzman said.

  ‘Take us one-seventy,’ O’Keefe said, without looking up from the screen. Wilson turned the wheel to alter course.

  ‘Further out to sea, Cap?’ Marshall said with a raised eyebrow, obviously cautious not to question the captain’s authority too directly.

  O’Keefe ignored him. ‘Give me a hundred and twenty-five revs, Guzman.’

  ‘One-two-five,’ Guzman repeated, getting on the EOT to relay the speed increase down to the engine room.

  Jude seemed to have been entirely forgotten for the moment. He couldn’t take his eyes from the binoculars. In what seemed a blindingly short time, the speedboats had closed the gap by at least a mile. He now could make out enough detail through the powerful lenses to see the tiny figures of men on board the approaching boats. There were at least six or eight men on each, all Africans. As they kept coming, Jude saw them alter course to follow the turning Andromeda. They were gaining.

  Closer. Closer. Jude felt his mouth go dry as he realised the men on the boats were clutching automatic weapons. There was no longer any doubt. It was actually happening. The ship was under attack.

  Jude’s heart began to pound, and his mind began to swim.

  ‘You want me to call up UKMTO, Cap?’ Marshall asked.

  ‘Too late for that,’ O’Keefe muttered. ‘They’re coming in so fast.’

  Jude couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It seemed insane. Here they were, alone and vulnerable with an obvious pirate attack about to happen, and the captain didn’t want to radio for help? What about the international navy patrols that were supposed to be out there guarding them?

  Marshall turned to look at Jude. His face was full of strain, and Jude could see in his eyes that he couldn’t understand the captain’s unwillingness to call for help, either. ‘You should get down there with the rest of the crew,’ was all he said.

  Jude nodded. He reluctantly put down the binoculars. Unmagnified, the incoming speedboats were just small dots once more, but growing larger every second. Jude left the bridge by the outer door, the way he and Marshall had entered, and stepped out onto the steel walkway. He glanced down at the deck far below, then at the speedboats and mother ship in the distance, and was suddenly gripped with the desire to get an even better view.

  Without pausing to dwell on the knowledge that he was disobeying orders by not returning directly below, he thought, What the hell, and clattered up the narrow metal ladder that connected the walkway with the flying bridge, the very highest point of the ship.

  It was like being on the top of a mountain. The ocean wind was strong, fluttering his shirt and ripping at his hair. Jude lay flat on his belly and peered through the railing. He didn’t need binoculars any more for a clear view of the fast-approaching boats. He could hear their motors growing steadily louder over the thrum of the ship and the crash of the waves. He imagined he could almost hear the excited chatter of the pirates themselves as they got closer and closer to their prey. They couldn’t be more than six or seven hundred yards away now.

  Jude’s heart was pounding faster than ever as he wondered what was going to happen. A voice inside his head was screaming at him that he shouldn’t be up here watching the terrifying spectacle. He should be down there with his fellow crewmen, Mitch and Condor and Hercules, Gerber and the rest of them! If they didn’t already know what was going on, he needed to warn everyone. Now!

  Jude leapt to his feet, vaulted the rail and started tearing down the ladder. He could see O’Keefe, Guzman, Wilson and Marshall through the window, all with their backs to him. Thankfully, they hadn’t noticed him.

  Then, suddenly, the captain and mates were no longer alone on the bridge. An inner door opened. Three men Jude had never seen before walked in.

  The man in the middle was older, with receding silvery hair cropped short like a soldier’s. His body language was that of someone very much in charge. He was wearing a military-style combat jacket. In his left hand he was holding a small oblong aluminium flight case. Like the kind photographers carried cameras and lenses inside. Except he didn’t look like a photographer. The case’s handle was attached to his left wrist by a chain and steel cuff.

  Who were they? Then Jude remembered what Hercules had told him.

  The three a-holes on D Deck. Our esteemed passengers.

  None of the three was smiling. The captain and mates didn’t seem very happy to see them, either. But that might have been because of the pistol that the man with the case was holding in his right hand. It was pointing right at them.

  ‘Carter? What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?’ Jude heard Captain O’Keefe demand in a loud voice full of outrage.

  Jude whipped out of sight, scrambling back up the ladder and over the railing to the flying bridge. He froze there for a few instants, shaking and numb with shock at what he’d just seen. What was he supposed to do next? The rational part of him told him to remain hidden where nobody could see him.

  To hell with rational. He had to keep watching.

  He clutched the railing and let himself dangle head-first over the edge, terrified that the strong wind and the motion of the ship might cause him to slip and go plummeting to his death on the deck far below. Even more terrified that he might be spotted from inside the bridge.

  Hanging upside down and clinging on for dear life, he peered through the glass.

  The three mates were staring in bewilderment as the captain yelled at the man with the case. ‘Lower that weapon, Carter, you hear me? This wasn’t part of the deal.’

  Those words hit Jude like a brick. The deal?

  From the looks on the faces of Wilson, Guzman and Marshall, they had absolutely no idea what O’Keefe was talking about, either.

  Jude hung on tight and kept watching.

  The sound of the first guns
hot almost made him let go.

  The man called Carter showed not the smallest flicker of emotion as he shot the captain. O’Keefe clutched his chest and crumpled to the floor of the bridge. Then Carter turned the pistol on a stunned Frank Wilson and shot him in the head before he could react. Blood spattered the window.

  Then the other two mystery passengers pulled out pistols of their own. Guzman took two bullets to the chest and one in the back as he tried to bolt for the outer exit. The last man standing, Ricky Marshall, made a valiant attempt to wrestle a weapon from one of the gunmen before he, too, was cut down and collapsed to the floor.

  Paralysed with horror, still gaping through the bloody glass, Jude could barely breathe. As the speedboats kept getting nearer and nearer to the ship, he was realising that events much more complex and sinister than a simple pirate attack were unfolding. The Svalgaard Andromeda had just been hijacked from inside.

  What happened next confused and bewildered him even more.

  Chapter 13

  The man sometimes known as Ty Carter, sometimes by other aliases as the sensitive nature of his work dictated, and rarely ever by his real name Lee Pender, walked calmly towards the bodies. Blood was already pooling thick on the bridge floor, spreading in rivulets this way and that with the motion of the ship. Carter disliked getting his shoes messy, and was careful to avoid the blood as he crouched over each body in turn and used his free hand to ensure none had a pulse. He had performed such checks many times before in his long career, and was as skilful as any surgeon.

  Satisfied that all four were dead, he stood up and turned to his two accomplices with a nod. Their names were White and Brown, which amused him. They were mere hirelings, short-order trigger men paid to do exactly as he told them. So far, they’d proved perfectly capable at their job, and been equally good at taking his money without asking questions. To an operator like Pender, who trusted no one, secrecy was an essential part of life, and never more than now. Because if White and Brown had had any inkling whatsoever of what this was all about – the hit in Oman, the purpose of this sea voyage and, most of all, the nature of the item he was carrying inside the case attached to his left wrist – he was certain they would waste as little time killing him for it as he had in dispatching its former owner.

  Which wasn’t a worry for Pender, because he intended to beat them to the punch. The plan was about to enter its next phase. White and Brown had fulfilled their purpose and their services would no longer be required. Aside from anything else, after several days cooped up in their company on this vile tub, Pender couldn’t stand them any longer.

  ‘Thank you for your help,’ he said to them. ‘You’re fired.’

  He shot White first, because he’d observed that White was just a touch quicker on the uptake than Brown. The single bullet blew the back of White’s head off and spattered the control console with blood and brains. Pender instantly turned the gun on Brown and pulled the trigger again. Brown caught it in the throat and dropped his weapon as he went staggering backwards, then slumped against the wall and slid to the floor.

  Pender shot each of them once more in the head, just to be sure. Then put away his pistol and walked to the window to watch the fun and games that were about to begin. The boats were fast approaching. Khosa’s men would soon be here, right on schedule.

  Jude had witnessed the whole thing. Peering upside down through the window as the gunman opened fire on the second of his own accomplices, he decided he’d seen enough. He dropped down the ladder like a gymnast. For an instant he was certain he must surely have been spotted, and fully expected to hear more gunfire behind him: shattering glass and the shock of the bullet as he scrambled away.

  But the killer was too busy slaughtering his own men to notice. Jude hit the deck at a sprint, his legs pumping faster and harder than he’d ever run in his life. No time to try to understand what he’d just seen, or what was happening. The angry buzz of the incoming speedboats was getting louder. It was all happening at once, and so fast. There was nothing Jude could do about the gunman who’d taken control of the bridge. Right now, all that mattered was keeping the attackers from getting on the ship. He had to find Mitch and the others, and alert them. What they could possibly do, he had no idea.

  If the sound of pistol shots from the bridge hadn’t already raised the alarm, the sudden crackle of automatic rifles and the splat of gunfire rattling off the side of the ship certainly did. Jude ran to the edge of the deck and peeked downwards over the rail, and his blood froze at the surreal sight of the two boats down below, coming right up alongside the Andromeda’s hull, crowded with pirates.

  There were about fourteen or fifteen of them, but it might as well have been an army a hundred strong. They were thin and ragged in dirty T-shirts and shorts, mean and aggressive and visibly psyched up for war. Every one of them was armed with an assault weapon that Jude recognised from their distinctive banana-shaped magazines as Kalashnikovs. The mother ship, some kind of trawler, was still some way behind, but closing in rapidly.

  As Jude watched the unthinkable happening right there in front of him, he saw muzzle flash from one of the boats and ducked back just in time before bullets whanged and sparked off the rail where he’d been standing a second ago. He rolled away from the edge, then sprang to his feet and went racing along the deck, frantically searching for his fellow crewmen.

  Then he saw them.

  A group of five crewmen, Mitch, Condor, Gerber, Lang and another sailor called Trent, were at the station just forward of the superstructure where the main high-pressure hose was kept, frantically getting ready to deploy the water jet in an attempt to repel the boarding that everyone knew was going to begin at any moment. The gunfire was almost continuous now, with bullets pinging everywhere and slapping off metal. The pirates seemed to know exactly where to concentrate their fire, making it impossible to get the hose over the side without getting shot to pieces. Running hard with his head down, Jude saw his friends were hopelessly pinned down on the deck where the upwards angle of the gunfire couldn’t reach them.

  ‘Where the hell were you?’ Mitch yelled over the noise as Jude reached them. ‘I was looking all over for you, man.’ Mitch was clutching a bright red flare pistol, and his pockets were bulging with twelve-gauge flare cartridges. With his other hand he grabbed a fistful of Jude’s shirt and yanked him down into a crouch next to the huddled group. His nose was an inch from Jude’s and his eyes were wide. Gerber had a tight grip on the shaft of a fire axe and looked grim, with a ‘didn’t I tell you this would happen’ glint in his eye. Condor’s tanned face had gone white and he seemed ready to dissolve into panic.

  ‘The bridge,’ Jude yelled back. More flurries of automatic rifle fire burst from below, stitching the side of the house above their heads and ricocheting off the latticework of the number two cargo crane.

  ‘Where’s the Cap?’ Gerber yelled.

  Only then did Jude realise the full implications of the hijacking. With the bridge fallen to enemy hands, it meant there was nobody left up there to issue a distress signal. It meant the remaining crew were completely helpless and alone in the middle of the ocean, with virtually nothing to fight back against their attackers with except their wits.

  Jude was so horrified by the realisation that he couldn’t speak. At that instant, a movement caught his eye and he looked up to see something flying up over the side of the ship.

  ‘Oh, shit,’ Condor said, turning even whiter.

  Twenty yards forward of where they were all huddled, the grappling hook dropped and hit the deck with a clang. Its steel claws raked backwards as the rope went taut, and then fastened themselves around the railing. It was quickly followed by another. The pirates only had to shinny up the sides. Within seconds they would be clambering aboard.

  ‘No way,’ Mitch yelled. ‘Not this ship, you motherfuckers!’ Before Jude could stop him, he was jumping to his feet and running like a crazy man towards the edge of the deck. Jude sprang up and chased after h
im, yelling at him to get back. Screaming in fury at the pirates, Mitch pointed the flare pistol down over the side and fired. Its boom was like a shotgun blast. The dazzling magnesium flare went off like a rocket and sailed downwards towards the boats, trailing green smoke. But Mitch’s aim was wild and the missile hit the water, fizzling out instantly. Still roaring at the pirates he dug in his pocket for another cartridge to load.

  The pirates had seen him and were training their fire on him. Mitch seemed oblivious of the bullets flying past and splatting off the container stack behind him. Jude grabbed his arm, trying to haul him back to safety, but Mitch jerked free and managed to load a second flare into his pistol.

  ‘Mitch!’ Jude shouted. ‘Get b—’

  Jude never finished. Mitch suddenly staggered and fell back towards him, nearly knocking Jude over. Jude felt something wet and warm slap across his face, and he tasted saltiness. He looked down and saw the blood spattered on his shirt, and for an instant he thought it was his own.

  Mitch made a sound like ‘Urgghhh’, and collapsed at Jude’s feet. Jude could hear someone screaming Mitch’s name. He realised it was him. Mitch’s body gave a jerk and rolled over. The side of his head was blown away.

  Chapter 14

  For what seemed like minutes on end, as if in a dream, Jude stared numbly down at his friend’s body and the horrific red mess that had been his head. The gunfire rattling up the side of the ship; Condor’s frantic yells of ‘get down, get down!’ coming from behind; the third and fourth grappling hooks shooting up over the side and getting a purchase on the rail: everything faded into the background. He was only dimly aware of Gerber running up next to him, axe in hand, swinging furious blows that struck sparks from the deck and severed one of the lines the pirates were using to shinny up the side of the ship. The rope parted and two boarders fell back and splashed into the foaming sea between their boats.

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