Authors: R. E. McDermott
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Military, #Spies & Politics, #Assassinations, #Conspiracies, #Terrorism, #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Sea Adventures, #Thrillers, #pirate, #CIA, #tanker, #hostage, #sea story, #Espionage, #russia, #ransom, #maritime, #Suspense, #Somalia, #captives, #prisoner, #Somali, #Action, #MI5, #spy, #Spetsnaz, #Marine, #Adventure, #piracy, #London, #Political
Imamura spotted light above, and kicked for all he was worth. He surfaced in a patch of diesel oil, the noxious smell ambrosia now, mixed as it was with breathable air. The sea was littered with debris, and he pulled himself up on a sizable piece of wood he recognized as the wardroom table.
Dugan awakened slowly as the erotic dream faded, leaving him with a throbbing erection. Anna lay naked in the crook of his arm, pressed against his side, and he could just make out her sleeping face in the moonlight leaking around the window blinds. He smiled and suppressed an impulse to stroke her cheek, fearful of waking her.
“You awake?” she mumbled into his chest.
“And so are you, I see.”
Anna lifted her head. “I could hardly be anything else, now could I? You’ve been poking me with that bloody thing for half an hour. And what ungodly hour is it, might I ask?”
Dugan turned to peer at the glowing face of the alarm clock. “Four thirty.”
“Bloody hell! Why did I have to fall in love with a morning person,” Anna groused, as she rolled on top of Dugan and nibbled his ear. “But since we’re both awake, I think one good poke deserves another. Don’t you, Mr. Dugan?”
Dugan responded with kiss, just as his cell phone vibrated on the bedside table. He turned his head to stare at the phone.
Anna sighed. “Go ahead and answer it. No one is calling with trivial news at this hour. Even if you don’t take it, you’ll be distracted.” She kissed him and smiled. “And I do want your full attention.”
Dugan reached for the phone. “Dugan.”
“Thomas. This is Alex. I need you to join me in the office as soon as possible.”
“What is it? Are Cassie and Gillian—”
“No. No. They’re fine. But
has been taken by the bloody pirates.”
“On my way,” Dugan said.
Offices of Phoenix Shipping Ltd.
Dugan paced the windowed wall of Alex’s spacious office, oblivious to the magnificent view of the Thames below in the dawn’s light. The knot of his tie hung loose at his neck and the sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled to his elbows. He glanced at Alex, slumped morosely at his desk, and like Dugan, unshaven. Anna, sitting in a chair across from Alex, appeared unruffled. But Anna could look calm—and gorgeous—in a hurricane.
“Right, then,” Anna said, glancing at a yellow legal pad in her lap. “Why don’t we go back over what we know and put together a plan of action?”
Dugan saw Alex nod a weary affirmation, and he moved away from the windows to the chair beside Anna’s.
“Notifications,” Anna said. “Who do we need to call?”
“The International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur already knows,” Alex said. “I’ll ring the underwriters as soon as they open. Beyond that, we should begin notifying the crew’s families. They should hear the news from us first and know we’re doing all we can to get their loved ones back.”
Anna nodded. “I’ll get a contact list from HR as soon as someone comes in.” She looked out the window at the lightening sky. “There are always some early birds down there, so I suspect we’ll see someone within the hour. What about the ransom?”
“Fifteen million is pretty stiff,” Dugan said. “Thank God for the hijacking-and-ransom policy. I just hope those guys don’t drag out the negotiations too long. How does that work, Alex?”
“W … we don’t have coverage any longer, Thomas,” Alex said. “I’m afraid I dropped it two months ago.”
The color drained from Dugan’s face. “You
“I dropped it,” Alex said. “Premiums had risen into the millions. We just can’t afford it—no ship owner can in this market. It’s not like a year ago when premiums were reasonable and freight rates high after the Panama closure. Since the global economic meltdown, we barely cover costs.”
“So you just dropped it? Just like that? No discussion? No joint decision?”
Alex’s face colored. “Yes, I suppose I did. But let’s pretend for a moment that I had come to you two months ago and solicited your opinion. Would you have studied the issue and given me an opinion, or would I have received the standard Tom Dugan ‘I’m the technical guy. You take care of all that financial stuff’ response?”
Dugan glared, then sighed.
“You’re right,” he said. “I would’ve left it to you anyway, so I guess the point is moot. But where does that leave us on the ransom? How about the P&I club?”
Alex shook his head. “No help there. If there’s a pollution incident arising from the hijacking, or crewmembers are killed or injured, protection and indemnity will cover liability, but they won’t pay a penny toward ransom.”
“So we’re screwed.”
“Not completely,” Alex said. “Hull and machinery insurers might contribute to a ransom, as will the cargo insurers. Both will suffer smaller losses from a ransom than by declaring the ship and cargo as total losses. But that means protracted negotiations not only with the pirates but between themselves, as each seeks to minimize their contribution.”
“God, I hate the thought of paying off these bastards, no matter who does it,” Dugan said. “Are you sure there’s no other option, Alex?”
“None that I can see,” Alex said. “None of the Western naval forces will consider a rescue attempt if the crew is under pirate control—it’s too risky for the hostages.”
“What about your people, Anna?” Dugan asked. “Any help there?”
Anna Walsh, in addition to being Dugan’s significant other and holding down a cover job as his secretary, was also a senior field operative with the British Security Service (MI5), currently tasked with maritime threat assessment.
She shook her head. “The official view of these hijackings is that they’re a strictly criminal activity. As such, they aren’t considered a threat to national security. In fact, you should be thankful the government isn’t involved.”
Dugan looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“What she means is, for Her Majesty’s Government to get involved, terrorism must be at least suspected,” Alex said. “And if terrorism is involved, the payment of ransom becomes illegal. As much as I dislike the thought of paying off these people, I wouldn’t like the option precluded.”
Dugan turned at the sound of activity coming through the open door.
“Sounds like people are starting to arrive,” Anna said, rising. “I’ll pop down to HR and get that contact list.”
Alex nodded. “I’ll get off emails to the insurers, and follow up by phone as soon as their offices open. Thomas, when Anna gets the contact list, could you begin notifying the families. I think it imperative that they hear the news from senior management first. We must reassure them we’re doing all we can.”
Dugan grimaced. “Those aren’t calls I ever wanted to make, but yeah, OK.”
By noon Dugan was finished—and emotionally drained. He’d started in the Philippines, where it was early evening, alerting the families of the unlicensed crew. From there he’d moved to various European countries where most of the officers lived.
By the time he’d made a few calls, word raced ahead of him along the informal and mysterious networks that connected a ship’s crew and their families, regardless of nationality, and soon his calls were expected. Some reacted with stoicism, long accustomed to the possibility their loved one might one day fail to return. Others reacted more emotionally. Dugan listened to them all, for as long as they needed him to listen, then left them with a special number and the address of a dedicated website Anna was setting up to provide information.
He checked the time and did a mental calculation. Early morning in Virginia. Jesse would be at his desk. Dugan made another call.
“Maritime Threat Assessment, Ward speaking.”
“Jesse. Tom Dugan.”
“Tom! How the hell are you?”
“We got problems, Jesse.
has been hijacked by Somali pirates.”
“Christ! I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“I don’t know.
there anything you can do? We don’t seem to have many options at the moment,” Dugan said.
“Well, admittedly I can’t do much. There aren’t any links between the pirates and terrorists—”
“I think I’ve heard that speech from Anna, but it’s nice to know MI5 and the CIA are on the same page,” Dugan said. “Though, frankly, I’m getting a little tired of you intelligence folks apologizing. When the shoe’s on the other foot, it seems Alex and I bend way over to help you out.”
“What’s eating you?” Ward asked, at last. “I just got to the party here. I don’t think I deserved that.”
Dugan sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m wound a bit tight. It hasn’t been a fun morning. But you’re right. You didn’t deserve that. What can you do?”
“I can share intel, if I stretch the point. Are there any US nationals involved?”
“Just me,” Dugan said.
“I meant in danger,” Ward said. “Our resources are spread thin as it is.”
“Yeah, I get the picture, but at least keep me posted on whatever you have, satellite imagery or whatever, OK?”
“Will do,” Ward replied. “What’s the ship again?”
“Being held where?”
“I’m hoping you can tell us,” Dugan said. “The pirates knew enough to disable the AIS before they diverted the ship to Somalia.”
“OK,” said Ward. “I’ll check the birds. She shouldn’t be too tough to find; the various pirate clans tend to use the same anchorages. And I do have limited assets on the ground there. But Tom, she’s not a US-flag ship, so I’m really off the reservation here. If I get any push back from up the food chain about expending resources—”
“I understand,” Dugan said. “I appreciate whatever you can do.”
“OK. I’ll get back to you.”
Dugan hung up and stared at the crew contact list. He ran his hands through his hair and said a silent prayer he’d never have to work his way down that list to deliver even more tragic news.
M/T Luther Hurd
Port Said, Egypt
Suez Canal Northern Terminus
Captain Lynda Arnett sat on the sofa in her office and glared at the brightly colored cartons of cigarettes stacked high on the coffee table. “This pisses me off,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Can’t say as I blame you,” Chief Engineer Jim Milam replied from the chair across from her. “They don’t call it the Marlboro Canal for nothing;
is the name of the game here.” He nodded to the towering stack of cigarettes. “And I have a suggestion. Better put most of that stash out of sight in your credenza, and just leave a few cartons out at a time. There’s going to be a steady stream of ‘officials’ knocking at your door, from the pilot to the rat inspector to the frigging dogcatcher. If they see all that, they’ll get greedy.”
Arnett sighed. “Good point,” she said, rising to gather an armload of cartons and carry them to her desk. Milam followed her with the rest. Arnett squatted behind her desk and stacked the cartons inside the credenza as Milam handed them to her, one by one, until the space was full. Arnett closed the cabinet and rose to face him.
“That should do it,” she said. “Any more advice, Obi-Wan? What about this Charlie Brown character? I’ve been ignoring him, but he called three times on the VHF while I was anchoring. I wish the damned agent communicated as well.”
Milam shrugged. “Your call, Captain, but Vince Blake and other captains I’ve sailed with usually let him on. Thing is, we’ll be swarmed by these guys selling trinkets or whatever, and it’s tough to keep them off, short of injuring them, and then there’d be hell to pay. Vince always figured Charlie Brown at least seemed to manage the swarm, and establish a sort of half-assed controlled chaos. And besides,” Milam added, “rumor is this guy has a lot of lower-level officials in his pocket. All it takes to lose our position in the next convoy is a little delay here or there. It’s happened before.”
“OK, so you’re telling me a ‘normal’ Suez transit means the ship’s going to be swarming with Charlie Brown and his gang of thieves, a bunch of line handlers, the useless Suez searchlight ‘electricians,’ and an unknown number of bogus officials. And I get to be the friggin’ cruise director and pass out smokes. Is that about the size of it?”
Milam grinned. “Almost. You also get the blame if anything goes wrong.”
“Christ,” Arnett said. “Captain Blake picked a great time to get appendicitis.”
“Look, Lynda, I’ve sailed with Vince Blake for ten years, and he thinks you’re up to it, and so do I. We both told Hanley that on the sat-phone before the chopper took Vince off at Gibraltar.” Milam grinned again. “Besides, you’re the only one with a master’s license.”
“Yeah,” Arnett said. “For a whole month. I need a lot more experience as chief mate before I’m ready for this. I wanted—”
“You wanted to be totally prepared so you could do a remarkable job and no one could say you were promoted fast because you’re a woman. And now you’re terrified you’re going to screw up, and people will say that anyway.”
Arnett glared at Milam, then her face softened. “Well, yeah.”
Milam shrugged. “News flash. Some guys are going to say that regardless, so screw ‘em. Lynda, we’ve been shipmates four years, and you pull your weight and then some. Better than most of the candy asses in the fleet that’ll be complaining.”
Arnett smiled. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, Chief, but frankly I’m surprised Hanley didn’t relieve me here in Suez. I was looking forward to going back to chief mate.”
“Ray Hanley’s not stupid,” Milam said. “He’s the most hands-on, unmitigated, pain-in-the-ass control freak you ever want to meet. If the city’s patching a pothole in the street outside his office in Houston, Ray is probably out supervising. He knows exactly who you are and figures there’s no point in wasting airfare to bring out a relief when he’s got a perfectly good captain in place.” He smiled. “Also, I reckon he’s crunched the numbers and figured that even with the remaining mates splitting extra watches and collecting overtime, he’s still saving money by sailing a mate short once you figure vacation pay and benefits.”
“I’m not sure whether to be flattered or pissed,” Arnett said.
“Go with flattered,” Milam advised. “If Hanley didn’t think you were up to it, he’d relieve you in a heartbeat.”
Arnett shrugged. “Well, flattered or pissed, there’s nothing much I can do about it. Which brings me to this little turd the agent sent an hour ago.” She picked up a piece of paper from her desk and handed it to Milam. His eyes widened as he read.
“Son of a bitch,” Milam said. “The Egyptians aren’t going to let the security team board?”
“That’s what it says,” Arnett said. “Seems arms and ammunition aboard a merchant vessel are a violation of ‘law number 394 for the year 1954.’ I guess the new government’s decided to dust off the old law and enforce it. They turned our security team back at the airport.”
“So where will they board?” Milam asked. “No matter how eager Military Sealift Command is to get this jet fuel to Diego Garcia, I doubt they’ll want us sailing past the Horn of Africa without security. I’m not too keen on the idea myself.”
Arnett shook her head. “Egypt was our best shot. But we’ll have a US Navy escort from the southern end of the canal at least through the Gulf of Aden. Maybe MSC can work something out with the navy.” She sighed. “One more thing over which I have zero control.”
M/T Luther Hurd
Port Suez, Egypt
Suez Canal Southern Terminus
Arnett looked down from the bridge wing and drummed her fingers impatiently against the wind dodger, watching the chaotic scene on the main deck below. Stan Jones, the newly promoted chief mate, was scurrying about with a clipboard, trying valiantly to do a headcount as people left the ship to board multiple boats jockeying for position at the bottom of the accommodation ladder. The “official” personnel—petty officials, line handlers, and searchlight electricians—asserted privilege and bulled their way down the crowded accommodation ladder through hordes of Charlie Brown’s vendors descending with bundles of unsold inventory and whatever they’d been able to steal while aboard. Here and there on the accommodation ladder, violent arguments ensued as a few of the vendors got far enough down the accommodation ladder to toss their bundles to comrades in the waiting boats and then turned to force their way against traffic, back up to the ship for a second load. Charlie Brown watched from his place near the gangway, smiling benignly and offering no assistance whatsoever.
Elsewhere on deck, Milam and one of his engineers were helping the deck gang discourage other late-arriving vendors from trying to board. Arnett watched as Milam and a seaman unhooked a homemade ladder from the ship’s side and let it splash into the water, earning them curses and shaking fists from the Egyptians in the boat below.
Please, God! Get these people off my ship!
Arnett prayed, as she took it all in.
She turned and glowered as Akil Shehadi, the ship’s agent, limped out of the wheelhouse toward her, clipboard in hand. The limp was of recent origin, a result of miscalculation. Assuming a female as young and attractive as Arnett had risen to her current rank by unprofessional means, Shehadi had decided to try his luck. His tender application of a hand to her ass had been rewarded by the significantly less tender application of her knee to his balls. From the man’s gait, the impact of the lesson was still being felt.
Shehadi stopped a safe distance away and displayed his crooked teeth in an unctuous smile. “Almost done, Capitan Arnett. I require one more signature.”
Arnett grunted and held out her hand, and Shehadi extended his arm to hand her the clipboard, keeping his distance. She suppressed a smile and the impulse to inquire as to the state of his testicular health, then signed the form and returned the clipboard.
“That it?” she asked.
“Yes, Capitan. But I was wondering. Do you think it would be possible for me to have a few more cartons of —”
Arnett froze him with a look.
“Perhaps not,” he said. “Forgive me for asking, and may Allah grant you a safe journey.”
Arnett nodded, and as Shehadi limped back into the wheelhouse, she turned back to the scene on the main deck, relieved the chaos was abating. The last of the Egyptians were going down the accommodation ladder, and as if by some silent signal, the late-coming vendors that circled the ship were moving off to other prey. Soon she saw Shehadi appear on deck, limping forward to accompany Charlie Brown down the accommodation ladder. She smiled as Charlie Brown stepped into the last boat and she saw the bosun begin to raise the ladder.
Thank you, God
. She lifted her radio to order Stan Jones forward to stand by the anchor.
Ahmed Chahine, aka Charlie Brown, stood in the launch and watched as the stern of M/T
receded into the distance. Relief washed over him in waves. He was done now. His family was safe, and the men who had threatened them were gone. And he had been careful—no one could ever connect the men with him. He didn’t know who they were—nor did he wish to. What you don’t know, you can’t be forced to tell, and that was best for everyone.