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Star of africa, p.9
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       Star of Africa, p.9

           Scott Mariani
 

  ‘Good luck, son,’ Gerber said as they unlocked the engine room hatch. Jude kicked off his shoes, thinking he’d be quieter without them, and padded barefoot through the open hatchway, his heart rate instantly quickening as he suddenly began to ask himself what the hell he thought he was doing.

  Once the hatch closed behind him, there was no going back. Jude set off furtively down the narrow metal passageway to the vertical ladder they’d scrambled down minutes before. He paused at the bottom rung, peering up through the circular hole above him as he listened for approaching footsteps or voices. Hearing nothing, he took a deep breath and climbed upwards towards the next level.

  The coast seemed to be clear, so far. He wasn’t dead yet, although that could easily change at any second. His heart was in his throat as he padded gingerly to the next upward hatchway. He paused once more at the top, sweating. Then kept moving. Another bare metal passage with ducts and pipes running along the wall, another open-tread iron ladder.

  It was as he was about to emerge onto the level above that Jude very nearly got caught for the first time. He ducked his head and shoulders down out of sight through the hatch and held his breath as a group of pirates appeared around a corner and passed directly above him, their footsteps clanging on the bare metal floor just inches away. There were three of them, heavily armed and apparently combing the ship for the rest of the crew, but they weren’t taking it too seriously, as if mopping up survivors was just another part of the game to them. Jude could hear them laughing among themselves, and caught a whiff of something that wasn’t tobacco smoke.

  He waited until they were gone. When he could breathe again, he crept quickly onwards and upwards. Five minutes. Ten to go before Diesel shut down the power and the pirates would know something was up.

  He was on A Deck now, into the bottom level of the house and approaching the heart of the danger zone. His pulse was escalating with every yard. Around the next ninety-degree corner was the mess room door, hanging ajar.

  He drew breath as he saw the slick of blood on the metal step and across the passageway. The blood trail stopped in a pool that reflected the neon striplights above. In the middle of the pool, inert and spreadeagled on his belly, his head turned sideways with his cheek pressed to the floor and looking straight at Jude with lifeless porcelain eyes, was Jack Skinner, the ship’s bosun. He’d managed to drag himself this far before he died from his gunshot wounds.

  Jude was gaping at the corpse when the mess room door swung wide open. He ducked behind it just in time to avoid being spotted by the two armed Africans who stepped out and walked through the blood towards Skinner’s body. They bent to seize a wrist each. Peering around the edge of the door, Jude was just three feet away from them, close enough to smell their sweat and the firing-range tang of cordite on their clothes. Their bare arms were muscled and lean and glistening. The pirate nearest him had his rifle casually slung over his shoulder, tantalisingly within Jude’s reach, and for a moment he was insanely tempted to make a grab for it.

  The pirates started dragging the bosun’s body up the passage towards the external hatch that led to the main deck. The smeared blood trail they left in their wake made Jude want to throw up. He stood motionless until they were out of sight, then with legs like jelly he ran on towards the hatch for B Deck.

  Up and up. Twice more, he froze as he heard voices and laughter, and whipped out of sight. By the time he reached E Deck his stomach muscles were clenched so tight that it hurt and he was cursing himself for having come up with this lunatic idea.

  But they hadn’t got him yet, and he’d almost reached his objective.

  Eight minutes, thirty seconds. Six and a half minutes to go before the guys below threw the power switch. The sands were running fast out of the hourglass.

  The door of the captain’s cabin was shut, but not locked. Slowly, slowly, he eased it open and peered inside, ready to yank the big flashlight out of his belt and start flailing away with it as a club. As if it would do him any good against automatic weapons.

  To Jude’s relief, the cabin was empty. He slipped through the doorway and quickly bolted it behind him. If anyone came, he could always scramble out of the window, which was open just wide enough to admit a blessed breath of fresh air. Jude crept over and peered cautiously over the sill. He could see the whole length of the main deck from here. It was swarming with armed Africans. He swallowed hard, then harder as he saw what they were doing.

  The pirates were dragging bodies across to the starboard rail and dumping them into the sea. As he watched, the pair who’d almost caught him earlier heaved Jack Skinner’s corpse up and over by the wrists and ankles, leaving a red smear on the railing as it slithered out of sight, followed a second later by a dull splash. Jude fought the urge to throw up.

  The mother ship had come up alongside the Andromeda. It was a battered-looking fishing vessel, its hull more rust than paintwork. More pirates were milling about the trawler, every single one of them armed with the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. Then, as Jude kept watching, he saw two men walk up the deck of the cargo ship, deep in conversation. He instantly recognised one of them as Carter, still carrying the small aluminium case chained to his left hand.

  The other was a demon.

  The tall, powerfully-built African was the most frightening-looking man Jude had seen in his life. He was a commanding presence, dressed in a loose rendition of military uniform: boots, khakis, a red beret worn at an angle and a gunbelt with some kind of enormous handgun in a flap holster. Bandoliers loaded with pointed rifle cartridges hung crossways around both shoulders. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, revealing thick, muscled forearms. The huge gold watch on one wrist caught the sunlight, as bright as a beacon against his ebony skin.

  But it wasn’t what the man was wearing. It was his face. Even from a distance, the sight of it made Jude draw a breath. He looked monstrous. Inhuman.

  Jude had forgotten all about the ticking clock. He felt the same icy tingle of fear down the back of his neck that he’d felt as a young boy, when he’d sneaked downstairs in the dead of night to the living room of the vicarage to turn on the TV and be illicitly terrified by his first-ever horror movie.

  At first glance Jude thought the African must have been burned or mangled in some kind of accident; then he realised what he was seeing was deliberate mutilation. Huge raised ridges of scar tissue ran in parallel lines up both sides of his face, from his jaw to where they disappeared under the red beret. More tracks had been carved in downward-pointing V shapes on his forehead, distorting his brow into a permanent expression of furious rage. They looked as if they had been gouged into his flesh with a hot knife. Patterns of lumps, like raised pockmarks, circled his eyes. Something had been done to his cheekbones to make them stand out like horns. Like something out of a nightmare.

  The scarred man was unquestionably the leader of the pirates. While his men ran back and forth over the decks of both vessels, he stood calmly smoking a long cigar, breaking off from his conversation with Carter to issue orders and signals to the others.

  The fifteen minutes were almost up. Jude managed to tear himself from the window, shaken by the sight and reminding himself of what he’d come here to find.

  Captain O’Keefe had kept the personal belongings in his cabin in immaculate order, including the small desk set into an alcove in the wall. The Dell laptop was powered down, the lid closed, a light blinking on its front panel. Jude stepped over to the desk and flipped the laptop open. The screen flashed into life, showing the email program and the half-finished message that the captain had been in the middle of writing to his wife back home in Indiana when he’d left it to attend to his duties. It began: ‘Dear Emily … ’

  Jude felt a moment of shame for intruding on a dead man’s privacy. He imagined the awful scene in store when Emily O’Keefe received the news of her husband’s death. Remembering the captain’s final words to Carter before the man had shot him, Jude found it easy to have more sympathy
for her than for her late husband. Whatever kind of a deal the man had struck with Carter, it had landed them all in mortal danger. It had already cost the lives of Mitch and several other innocent men.

  So burn in hell, Henry Hainsworth O’Keefe.

  His time was nearly up. He was going to have to work fast. He deleted the unfinished email and clicked on COMPOSE NEW MESSAGE. He racked his brain to recall the position coordinates he’d seen on the readout in the conning station. As the figures came streaming into his mind, he started tapping keys and rushed out his message. There wasn’t a lot to say. He didn’t even know if it would work. By the time its recipient saw it, he and all his fellow crewmen might be dead and the ship stolen away to Christ knew where.

  When he’d finished, he addressed the email to the only person he’d been able to think of to contact. The man who had got him here. Jeff Dekker.

  Jude hit SEND and held his breath in a silent prayer as the email winged its way off into cyberspace. It was nearly twenty to five, his time. Two hours earlier in France.

  Time up. Right on cue, Jude saw the power light of the laptop fade and die, and the battery light come on. The screen dimmed as it switched to its own power. A second later, Jude felt the ever-present low thrum of the engines go quiet. Diesel had been as good as his word. The ship was now effectively dead in the water.

  Jude felt momentarily elated. The crew were still a long way from regaining full control of the ship, but they’d just scored a decisive little victory. It wouldn’t be long now before Carter and the pirates twigged what was up.

  He crept back over to the cabin window. Pirates were still marching about the deck, but Carter and the terrifying African were gone. No telling where they could be now. Heading straight for him, maybe.

  Jude grabbed his torch and hurried from the cabin. He had no idea whether he’d make it back down to the engine room alive. But he’d completed his task.

  Now only time would tell whether it had been worth it.

  Chapter 16

  Business at Le Val had certainly been booming during Ben’s long absence. He’d been happy to take Jeff’s word for it, and it wasn’t until early that afternoon when, bored and at a loose end, he’d wandered into the office where Jeff was at one of the two facing desks, tapping out an email to a client. Ludivine had the day off, and they had the place to themselves. Ben sat at the other desk and sifted through some files, amazed at all the new contracts that had been coming in over the last months. Money was pouring through the door, and with it increasing commitments and an expanding monthly timetable. No wonder Jeff wanted him back, if only to share the growing workload.

  Something else for Ben to feel guilty about.

  Going through the piles of paperwork, Ben soon discovered something else that didn’t make him feel any better.

  ‘You never told me Brooke was still coming here,’ he commented to Jeff, keeping the surprise out of his voice.

  ‘Yeah, so?’ Jeff replied, still clacking away on his keyboard.

  Brooke – or more properly, Brooke Marcel, PhD in Clinical Psychology, author of seminal papers on Stockholm Syndrome and a leading expert in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in long-term kidnap survivors – had once upon a time been a frequent visitor to Le Val, employed to give classes on hostage psychology. Ben had first met her back in his SAS days, when he’d attended one of her lectures and been highly impressed with her sharpness of mind, her humour and (he’d admitted to himself only in retrospect) her looks. It wasn’t until she’d become a regular fixture at Le Val, some years afterwards, that their relationship had grown into something much deeper. When that relationship had later crumbled so disastrously, he’d assumed that she would never set foot there again. Yet there it was, an invoice of payment for lecture fees and travel expenses with her signature on it, stamped PAID and dated just two months earlier. And another, dated two months before that. Seeing her name, and knowing that she’d been here, made Ben’s stomach flip and his throat go dry.

  Jeff glanced up from his computer. ‘What was I supposed to do, tell her not to come any more? You know as well as I do there’s nobody better at what she does. Besides, I like having her around.’

  ‘She’s not due to turn up today, is she?’ Ben asked, and immediately felt wretched and cowardly for even thinking it. But it couldn’t be helped. If the answer was affirmative, he was ready to bolt for his car.

  ‘Not for another couple of weeks,’ Jeff muttered, returning to his message. ‘Have to check the diary.’

  ‘How is she?’ Ben asked. Mr Nonchalant.

  ‘Hmm? Oh, fine, fine.’ Jeff wasn’t always the most conversational of company.

  ‘I mean, does she seem happy? Seeing anyone?’ Ben didn’t want to appear to be fishing, but, fully aware of how unreasonable it might be, that was exactly his intention.

  ‘Think she was. Don’t know.’

  Ben almost gave a shudder as an awful thought struck him. ‘Not Rupert Shannon, I hope.’ Shannon was the stuffed shirt of an ex-officer Brooke had been running around with for a time before she and Ben had got together. He couldn’t think of a more unworthy suitor. The very idea made his flesh crawl with jealousy.

  Jeff seemed to be barely listening and didn’t look up from his screen. ‘Like I say, I don’t know. Didn’t ask.’

  ‘I see,’ Ben said, quietly fearing the worst.

  Jeff’s computer gave a small ping as a new email came in. Probably another potential client, Ben thought, with mixed feelings. More income, more workload, more pressure on him to stay on.

  Jeff lazily clicked out of whatever he was doing, and into the email inbox. He read, blinked, read again, and his jaw dropped open.

  ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said. ‘Oh, no. No, no.’

  ‘What?’ Ben asked, with no idea what it could be. A surprise tax audit? A mass cancellation? The bank calling in a loan?

  ‘You’d better fucking see this, Ben,’ Jeff said.

  Ben jumped up and moved around the desk to look at the screen. When he saw the email, he froze, blinked twice, then read it again.

  He would read it many more times over the coming hours.

  It was unbelievable. But it was for real.

  The email had landed at precisely thirty-nine minutes past two, local time. It had no subject header and was typed in capitals, a breathless one-line rush with no breaks, no punctuation, very clearly dashed off in a tearing hurry. All it said was:

  JEFF SOS SHIP HIJACKED BY ARMED PIRATES CREW KILLED NEED HELP FAST NO RADIO MAINTAINING POSITION 3.530797, 54.381358 DO NOT REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE PLS HURRY JUDE

  For a long moment, Ben and Jeff were stunned into silence.

  Then the reaction hit. Pacing. Fretting. Wanting to yell and punch the walls. Ben’s anguish. Jeff’s horror. Ben’s short-lived flare of anger towards his friend for getting Jude onto the ship in the first place. Jeff’s remorse and readiness to take the blame, no excuses, no denials.

  But there was no time for emotions here. Both men had learned a long time ago that emotions were the deadliest enemy at a time like this. Only the cold, calm, rational actions they took in the next few minutes would decide the outcome of the situation. Ben quashed his rising panic and took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry, Jeff. It’s not your fault.’

  ‘No hard feelings,’ Jeff said, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder and looking him in the eye with as much reassurance as he could muster. ‘I’d have felt the same. Fuck, a lot worse.’

  ‘All right,’ Ben said, fighting to stay calm. ‘Let’s take stock of this. What do we know? One, we know it’s not a hoax. Jude wouldn’t kid around. Two, we know that at least some of the crew are still alive. Or were, a few minutes ago when this message was sent.’

  ‘Jesus Christ, don’t say that,’ Jeff muttered. ‘Don’t even think it.’

  But Jeff was thinking the exact same thing, as Ben knew perfectly well. Anything could happen in a few minutes, with heavily tooled-up Somali pirates running amok on board and the crew resisting. J
ude could be dead already. He could have been dead even before they’d read the email.

  No. He’s alive. Ben gritted his teeth and willed himself to hold that thought. Believe it, absolutely and without question.

  Ben threw himself into a desk chair, yanked the computer towards him, snatched a sheet of notepaper from the desk and dashed off the position coordinates from Jude’s email. He plunged into a web search for Google Maps. Within seconds, he was feverishly tapping in the numbers. Moments later, he’d pinpointed the ship’s position. A little red pointer, like an inverted drop of blood, marked the spot in the middle of the ocean where his son was, or had been. He was out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, just over one hundred and fifty miles east of the Somali coast.

  ‘Two hours ahead of us, EAT, Eastern Africa Time,’ Jeff said, peering over his shoulder. He glanced at his watch. ‘16.39 hours over there.’

  Ben rattled more keys. Next he brought up the Commercial Crime Services section of the International Chamber of Commerce website. It was the home of the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre where all current and ongoing incidents were monitored and displayed around the clock. The website offered a single point of contact for shipmasters and shipping line owners all over the world to report piracy incidents. Its twenty-four-hour phone and email hotline was run from the central company base in Kuala Lumpur, from where the relevant maritime law enforcement authorities anywhere in the world could be alerted to a developing incident.

  Ben clicked on the tab that said LIVE PIRACY MAP. A satellite image of the world appeared onscreen. It was dotted with a profusion of pointer arrows colour-coded by status, in increasing order of seriousness: Suspicious Vessel, Attempted Attack, Fired Upon, Boarded, Hijacked. The multicoloured arrows were mainly clustered around the east and west coasts of Africa, as well as a great many in the South China Sea, Malaysia and Borneo. A stunning number of the arrows were orange, designating ‘Boarded’. It was incredible to think that at this very moment, so many ships’ crews were facing the imminent danger of being overrun by armed bandits.

 
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