Star of africa, p.8
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       Star of Africa, p.8

           Scott Mariani
 

  Only then did Jude come to his senses, and along with them came a flood of rage. He bent down and snatched up the fallen flare pistol. It was sticky with Mitch’s blood. He didn’t know how it worked, but he’d seen Mitch load it and he guessed you only had to pull the trigger. Teeth gritted, he leaned right out over the rail, pointed the gun vertically down at the nearer of the two boats, and fired.

  The flare whooshed down the side and burst against the back of the boat in a flash of white flame that ignited the jerrycans of spare fuel lashed to the stern next to the outboard motor. The boat exploded in a blast that lifted it out of the water and sent a fireball and a wave of searing heat rippling up the Andromeda’s hull. Jude and Gerber both ducked back from the edge. A pall of black smoke enveloped everything. Jude could hear the screams and splashes as pirates hurled themselves into the sea to escape the flames.

  For a few moments, it seemed as if they’d succeeded in beating them off. But it was a short-lived victory. The second boat had managed to power away from the explosion. With unbelievable speed, and before Jude even realised what was happening, the pirates were swarming up the ropes and leaping nimbly over the smoke-blackened rail to pounce on deck with their weapons ready and firing.

  Jude wanted to shoot back at them, but then felt a powerful hand grip his arm and drag him back towards the cover of the container stacks. Gerber was in full-on soldier mode now and shouting ‘Fall back, fall back!’ as if commanding his troops to retreat in the face of an enemy charge.

  There was no choice. Jude glanced back one last time at Mitch’s body before he followed Gerber and the others at a run, down a narrow alley between container stacks and across a stretch of open deck towards the relative safety of the house. ‘This way, this way!’ Gerber was shouting over the crackle of gunfire, pointing towards the main hatchway leading inside.

  One by one, they ducked through the entrance. Condor slammed the hatch shut behind them and spun the locking wheel. It was the same kind of heavy riveted iron door, streaked with rust, that were all over the ship. They were designed to seal tightly enough to keep out Force Ten storms. They could keep the pirates at bay – for now, at any rate.

  From the other side of the thick metal they could hear running footsteps on the deck, clattering up the ladders, along the walkways. More gunshots, sporadic bursts of automatic fire coming from different points as the pirates rapidly spread all over. Jude edged closer to the door, pressed his ear to it and heard the raised voices and barked commands from the other side. He didn’t think they were speaking in Arabic. It was an African language he’d never heard before. Somali?

  The voices were drowned out as a rifle shot cracked out just the other side of the door, mingled with the very loud percussive impact of a bullet hitting the metal. Jude flinched back and saw the dent, like a raised bump, right next to where his ear had been. Two more shots hammered the door before the pirates gave up and moved on.

  ‘They’re gonna be all over us in no time,’ Gerber muttered disgustedly. ‘Those stupid cages ain’t gonna hold ’em back more’n one minute.’

  ‘What the crap are we gonna do?’ said Trent.

  Ignoring him, Gerber turned urgently to Jude. ‘You were up on the bridge. Did you see the captain? Did they radio for help?’

  Jude’s mind was spinning so badly he thought he was going to throw up. He was the only one who knew just how bad their situation was. He had to break the news to the others.

  ‘The captain’s dead,’ he blurted out. ‘They shot him. And all three of the mates. They’re all dead.’

  ‘Steady on, son,’ Gerber said. ‘Slow down. Who shot them?’

  ‘The passengers.’

  ‘What?’ Condor exploded.

  ‘They’re hijackers,’ Jude said. ‘Their leader is called Carter. He killed the other two.’

  ‘Wait. You mean to say this guy Carter killed Cappy O’Keefe and our guys, then killed his own guys?’ Gerber said in disbelief.

  ‘He’s one of the pirates,’ Jude said, struggling to talk coherently. They could hear activity and voices everywhere as the pirates took over the whole ship above them. ‘It’s all been planned in advance.’ More questions were clotting his mind, one piling on top of another. What kind of deal did the captain do with the hijackers? Had O’Keefe deliberately failed to radio for help? What was in the case that Carter had cuffed to his wrist?

  ‘Oh, shit, oh shit oh shit,’ Condor kept repeating over and over. Gerber snapped at him to shut up.

  ‘What the crap are we gonna do?’ Trent said again, breathing hard.

  ‘Get the hell out of here, is what,’ said Lang.

  Gerber nodded. ‘We gotta get below, right now. Only chance. Down there with the chief and the others.’ And Jude knew he was right. The pirates would quickly gain access to everything from A Deck upwards. But if their small group could beat them to the single stairway leading below decks to the engine room and holds, there was a hope that all the survivors might be able to seal themselves off down there together.

  Gerber led the way, still clutching his axe, Jude right behind him, followed by Lang, Condor and Trent. At every turn through the twisting, constricted passageways, there was the terrifying prospect of running into a gang of armed pirates. Or maybe even worse, Jude was thinking, they might meet Carter. Either way, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

  They were just steps from the gangway leading below when a connecting hatch suddenly burst open and a large dark figure came piling through it towards them. Gerber raised the axe, ready to strike.

  ‘Whoa, easy, easy!’ It was Hercules. His old army jacket was spotted with fresh bloodstains and he was clutching a wicked-looking carving knife, the largest one he’d managed to grab from the galley before escaping. As he breathlessly explained, the pirates had stormed in as he’d been in the middle of serving coffee to Jack Skinner, the bosun. ‘I don’t know where Murphy is, man,’ Hercules said in anguish, brandishing the knife. ‘Just know if I get close to one of those mothers, they’s gonna have a real bad day.’

  Gerber had the good sense not to say, ‘Never mind the damn parrot.’ Pointing at the blood, he asked, ‘Are you hurt?’

  Hercules shook his head. ‘It’s Charlie’s blood, man. They shot’m.’ Charlie was the AB who sometimes helped in the kitchen. ‘Skinner, too. Just opened fire. Sucker didn’t have a chance. Me, I just managed to slip out the back way.’

  Anxious looks passed between the others. Jack Skinner might not have been universally liked, but nobody was going to deny he’d have been a useful presence in a situation like this.

  ‘Is he dead?’ Condor groaned.

  ‘I saw the man go down, homes. He’s dead, all right.’

  Jude quickly broke the news of the deaths of the captain and mates to Hercules, who just shook his head.

  ‘They’re wiping us out, dude,’ Lang mumbled. ‘We’re fucked.’

  ‘No we’re not,’ Jude said. ‘We’re going to get out of this.’

  ‘Listen to the boy,’ Gerber said.

  ‘This ain’t happening,’ Condor said, on the verge of succumbing to panic. ‘Pirates don’t do this.’

  ‘Not unless they want to take the ship for themselves,’ Gerber said grimly.

  ‘A ship this size? What the hell for?’

  ‘You have any better ideas? Come on, let’s keep moving before the bastards cut us off.’

  As Gerber urged, the group kept moving. Six men out of twenty, with at least seven dead that they knew of above decks.

  They could only hope that Diesel and his engine room assistants, Peters and Cherry, were still unharmed and without unwanted company down there.

  As it turned out, the engineer and his guys were still very much alive, but not alone. They’d already been joined below by four more crewmen: Allen, Lorenz, Park the Korean, and Scagnetti, who’d bolted from their posts above decks to retreat to safety the moment the shooting had begun. Thirteen men crammed into the engine room and locked the hatch down behind them
, safe for now. The heat in the confined space was stifling, the metal walls streaming with condensation. The sharp odours of oil and fuel, sweat and fear were heavy in the air.

  An urgent conference immediately started, with Gerber announcing to those who didn’t already know that the captain and mates had been shot to death, the vessel had fallen somehow into the hands of an unexplained coalition of hijackers and pirates, and there was no way to radio out for help. Diesel, a grizzled veteran of many trips under Henry O’Keefe, took the news grimly but silently.

  Jude had never thought he’d be happy to see Scagnetti. Gerber didn’t seem so pleased, especially when Scagnetti failed to suppress a crooked little smile on hearing of the captain’s demise. ‘We could have done with a little more help up there,’ Gerber growled at him.

  ‘You want to make something of it, Pop?’ Scagnetti countered, instantly rising to the challenge.

  ‘Cool it, boys,’ said Diesel, thrusting a big arm between them before it came to blows. ‘Thirteen of us are still alive. It could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.’

  ‘You figure?’ Condor said. ‘It’s only a matter of time before they get to us down here.’

  Diesel shook his head. ‘Let ’em try. That hatch was built to keep a million tons of ocean out. You’d need a rocket to make a dent in it.’

  ‘Then we’d best hope they ain’t got any rockets,’ Trent said.

  ‘Face it, boys, we’re screwed,’ Condor said. ‘No food or water, no weapons and no way to communicate jack shit to the outside world. Even if we could get to a radio, how many of us would even know what channel to use, or who to call?’

  There was a murmur of anxious consent among some of the men. ‘He’s right,’ Trent said.

  ‘Buncha pussies,’ Scagnetti sneered at them. ‘Scared of a few raggedy-ass nigger pirates.’

  Gerber gave him a hard look. ‘You want to go up there and take ’em on all by yourself, Scagnetti, please, be my guest. Funny, I didn’t see you up on deck when they were all comin’ up the side.’

  Cherry, one of the assistant engineers, put out his hands to quell the rising tension. ‘Okay, look, we all know we can’t fight them. Forget that shit. But there’s gotta be something we can do. Maybe there’s some other way we can get out a distress call.’

  ‘We’ll figure something out,’ Diesel agreed. Though for the moment, nobody was offering any ideas.

  Jude slumped down against the metal bulkhead wall, suddenly feeling completely drained. His hands were shaking. He closed his eyes, but however tightly he screwed them shut, he couldn’t close out the image of Mitch’s dead face, covered in blood and brains, or the vision of the burning boat hit by the flare that had been fired by his own hand. Men screaming, diving into the water. Jude had seen at least one of the pirates engulfed in flames. Could you survive that? Had he killed them?

  Jude had never hurt a living soul in his life before. The remorse felt like a leaden weight in his stomach. He kept telling himself that he’d acted in defence of his friends. But did that justify it?

  He thought about his father, his real father. Ben never talked about the people whose lives he’d taken. Jude knew there must have been many. But even though Ben had never said so, Jude always had the feeling that he lived with a private burden of remorse over the memory of each and every one of them, no matter how bad they’d been in life, no matter how little choice Ben might have had in killing them. To take away everything a person had, everything they would ever have. It was no easy thing. Now Jude understood that personally, and it was a weight he knew he would carry forever.

  ‘You okay, son?’ said a voice. Jude opened his eyes and tried to smile up at Gerber.

  ‘I’m fine,’ he said. It was a lie, but he swallowed hard and forced himself to make it true. He stood up and willed the trembling to stop.

  ‘We’ll get out of this, you’ll see,’ Gerber said. ‘There’ll be a way.’

  That was when Jude suddenly remembered something Mitch had told him, while they were still in port in Salalah. It felt like a hundred years ago.

  ‘What about sending out an email?’ he said, speaking his thoughts out loud. Diesel and a couple of the others heard him, and turned.

  ‘You mean like a text, from a cellphone? We’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean, son. You tried getting any reception lately?’

  ‘I don’t mean a text,’ Jude said. ‘I mean a real email, from a laptop with satellite internet access.’

  Diesel shrugged. ‘Well, sadly, I don’t seem to have one on me right now.’

  ‘But there’s one on board,’ Jude said. ‘In the captain’s cabin. Mitch told me O’Keefe was emailing his wife all the time.’

  ‘So?’

  ‘So,’ Jude said, ‘what if one of us was able to sneak up there?’

  ‘One of us?’

  ‘I was thinking of myself.’

  ‘Without getting caught and shot to pieces?’ said Condor, the eternal optimist. ‘You want to tell me exactly how you’re planning on managing that?’

  ‘Son, it might as well be on Mars,’ Gerber said. ‘You’d never make it.’

  Jude rubbed his chin and thought hard for a few moments. An idea was growing in his mind, and the more it grew the more he believed it could work. ‘Diesel,’ he said. ‘This is the engine room, yes?’

  ‘Last time I looked,’ Diesel said, sweeping an arm back at the blue-painted mass of iron machinery, pipes and control equipment behind him.

  ‘So we have control over the ship’s power and they can’t override us from the bridge in any way?’

  If the answer was no, Jude’s germ of a plan was dead before it was even born.

  ‘Sure, we can throw the master switches on everything right here. Engine power, electrics, hydraulics, air, emergency generator, the works,’ Diesel said, still staring at him, as were the others, apart from Scagnetti who had wandered off on his own to light a roll-up and pollute the unbreathable air of the engine room still further.

  ‘What about the radar?’ Jude asked.

  ‘Uh-huh,’ Diesel said, uncertain where Jude was going with this. ‘We can knock that out along with every other instrument in the conning station. So?’

  Jude could feel a smile spreading over his face as his confidence in his plan grew stronger. ‘And if we cut the engines, the ship will stop moving and stay pretty much put?’

  ‘As long as the sea’s calm, sure,’ Diesel replied. ‘We’ll drift, but not by more than a few points, depending on the currents. Cut to the chase, kid. What the hell is this about?’

  ‘Listen,’ Jude said.

  Chapter 15

  Jude’s brainwave caused a lot of disagreement among the others. Condor thought he must be nuts to contemplate taking such a risk, with pirates almost certainly scouring every inch of the ship to murder each and every one of them. Gerber declared he had some balls on him and reckoned, on consideration, that it was worth a try. Nobody denied that Jude was the quickest and knew his way around the ship as well as any of them.

  ‘It’ll work,’ Jude kept saying.

  Scagnetti was sitting on a duct pipe, swinging his legs and puffing his roll-up. ‘Who you gonna call in, Limey Boy?’ he called out with a grin. ‘Friggin’ Double O Seven?’

  ‘Shut it, Scagnetti,’ Gerber warned him.

  ‘Never thought I’d say it, but Scagnetti has a point,’ Hercules said. ‘You wanna take this kind of crazy-ass risk to send a lousy email? To who?’

  ‘I have an idea about that,’ Jude said. ‘Trust me, okay?’

  ‘It’s not going to work,’ Diesel said. ‘The moment you shut down the power, the pirates will know something’s up. These guys ain’t stupid. They’re sailors. They know ships. We cut the juice and engine power just like that, it’ll give us away for sure. Like waving a big flag saying “Here we are!” They’ll be all over us in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.’

  ‘I thought you said it’d take a rocket to get through that hatch,’ Condor said.

 
It would. But none of us wants to be out there with ten fuckin’ Somalis blocking the way back with AK-47s.’

  ‘We don’t cut the power right away,’ Jude said. ‘I’ll need it for the satellite hookup. Fifteen minutes, that’s all I need, then throw the switch.’

  ‘Then you have another problem,’ Diesel said. ‘We have to assume the pirates are all over the bridge, right? Which means that if the power’s still on they’ll be able to monitor the watertight door indicator. The panel of lights will show them exactly which doors and hatches are opening and closing below. It’ll give your position away from the moment you start moving.’

  Jude wasn’t put off. ‘I’ll take my chances with the indicator panel. They probably won’t even notice.’

  ‘It’s nuts.’

  ‘Maybe so, but it’s the only way,’ Jude said. ‘I’m going for it. Exactly quarter of an hour after I step out of that hatch, you pull those switches. I’ll leg it back down below before they realise what’s happening.’

  ‘You’re crazy, you know that?’ Hercules rumbled, shaking his head. ‘You gotta death wish?’

  ‘Hey, if stupid wants to go get himself creamed, let’m,’ Scagnetti said.

  Diesel wasn’t happy about it, but it was clear to everyone that Jude couldn’t be dissuaded. Nobody had yet come up with anything better.

  ‘Hold on,’ Gerber said as Jude started opening the hatch. ‘You can’t go up there without some kind of weapon. Take my axe.’

  Jude looked at it. ‘I can’t run about with that. It’s too big.’

  ‘How about this, bro?’ Hercules said, offering Jude the butcher’s knife.

  The idea of using a knife on a living person made Jude’s flesh crawl, but he knew how lame that would sound to the others. ‘If I slip on a ladder and fall on it, it’ll go right through me,’ he said, by way of an excuse.

  ‘You’ll need this, at least,’ Diesel said, handing Jude a long, heavy metal Maglite. ‘It’s going to get pretty dark below decks once the power goes off.’

  Jude stuck the torch in his belt. ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m not planning on getting caught.’

 
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