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Authors: Wilbur Smith

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Those in Peril (Unlocked)

BOOK: Those in Peril (Unlocked)
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WILBUR SMITH

THOSE IN PERIL

MACMILLAN

 

This book is for

MOKHINISO

Queen of my Heart

without whose love and encouragement

it might never have been written

 

Eternal Father, strong to save,

whose arm has bound the restless wave,

who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

its own appointed limits keep,

O hear us when we cry to thee

for those in peril on the sea.

 

 

 

T
HE KHAMSEEN had been blowing for five days now. The dust clouds rolled towards them across the brooding expanse of the desert. Hector Cross wore a striped keffiyeh wrapped around his neck and desert goggles over his eyes. His short dark beard protected most of his face, but the areas of exposed skin felt as though they had been scoured raw by the stinging grains of sand. Even above the growl of the wind he picked out the throbbing beat of the approaching helicopter. He was aware without looking at them that none of the men around him had heard it as yet. He would have been mortified if he had not been the first. Though he was ten years older than most of them, as their leader he had to be the sharpest and the quickest. Then Uthmann Waddah stirred slightly and glanced at him. Hector’s nod of acknowledgement was barely perceptible. Uthmann was one of his most trusted operatives. Their friendship went back many years, to the day Uthmann had pulled Hector out of a burning vehicle under sniper fire in a Baghdad street. Even then Hector had been suspicious of the fact that he was a Sunni Muslim, but in time Uthmann had proved himself worthy. Now he was indispensable. Among his other virtues he had coached Hector until his spoken Arabic was almost perfect. It would take a skilled interrogator to discern that Hector was not a native-born speaker.

By some trick of the sunlight high above, the monstrously distorted shadow of the helicopter was thrown against the cloud banks like a magic lantern show, so that when the big Russian MIL-26 painted in the crimson and white colours of Bannock Oil broke through into the clear it seemed insignificant in comparison. It wasn’t until it was three hundred feet above the landing pad that it was visible. In view of the importance of the single passenger, Hector had radioed the pilot while he was still on the ground at Sidi el Razig, the company base on the coast where the oil pipeline terminated, and ordered him not to fly in these conditions. The woman had countermanded his order, and Hector was not accustomed to being gainsaid.

Although they had not yet met, the relationship between Hector and the woman was a delicate one. Strictly speaking he was not her employee. He was the sole owner of ‘Cross Bow Security Limited’. However, the company was contracted to Bannock Oil to guard its installations and its personnel. Old Henry Bannock had hand-picked Hector from amongst the many security firms eager to provide him with their services.

The helicopter settled delicately on the landing pad, and as the door in the fuselage slid open, Hector strode forward to meet the woman for the first time. She appeared in the doorway, and paused there looking about her. Hector was reminded of a leopard balancing on the high bough of a Marula tree surveying its prey before it sprang. Though he thought that he knew her well enough by repute, in the flesh she was charged with such power and grace that it took him by surprise. As part of his research he had studied hundreds of photographs of her, read reams of script and watched hours of video footage. The earlier images of her were on the Centre Court of Wimbledon being beaten in a hard-fought quarterfinal match by Navratilova, or three years later accepting the trophy for the women’s singles at the Australian Open in Sydney. Then a year later came her marriage to Henry Bannock, the head of Bannock Oil, a flamboyant billionaire tycoon thirty-one years her senior. After that came images of her and her husband chatting and laughing with heads of state, or with film stars and other show-business personalities, shooting pheasant at Sandringham as the guests of Her Majesty and Prince Philip or holidaying in the Caribbean on their yacht the
Amorous Dolphin
. Then there were clips of her sitting beside her husband on the podium at the annual general meeting of the company; other clips of her fencing skilfully with Larry King on his talk show. Much later she was wearing widow’s weeds and holding the hand of her lovely young daughter as they watched Henry Bannock’s sarcophagus being installed in the mausoleum on his ranch in the Colorado mountains.

After that her battle with the shareholders and banks and her particularly venomous stepson was gleefully chronicled by business media around the world. When at last she succeeded in wresting the rights that she had inherited from Henry out of the grasping fingers of her stepson and she took her husband’s place at the head of the board of Bannock Oil, the price of Bannock shares plummeted steeply. The investors evaporated, the bank loans dried up. Nobody wanted to bet on a sometime tennis player cum society glamour girl turned oil baroness. But they had not taken into account her innate business acumen or the years of her tutelage under Henry Bannock which were worth a hundred MBA degrees. Like the crowds at the Roman circus her detractors and critics waited in grisly anticipation for her to be devoured by the lions. Then to the chagrin of all she brought in the Zara Number Eight.

Forbes
magazine blazoned the image of Hazel in white tennis kit, holding a racquet in her right hand, on its front cover. The headline read: ‘Hazel Bannock aces the opposition. The richest oil strike for the last sixty years. She takes on the mantle of her husband, Henry the Great.’ The main article began:

In the bleak hinterland of a godforsaken and impoverished little Emirate named Abu Zara lies an oil concession once owned by Shell. The field had been pumped dry and abandoned in the period directly after WWII. For almost sixty years it had lain forgotten. That was until Mrs Hazel Bannock came on the scene. She picked up the concession for a few paltry millions of dollars and the pundits nudged each other and smirked. Ignoring the protests of her advisors she spent many millions more in sinking a rotary cone drill into a tiny subterranean anomaly at the northern extremity of the field; an anomaly which, with the primitive exploration techniques of sixty years previously, had been reckoned to be an ancillary of the main reservoir. The geologists of that time had agreed that any oil contained in this area had long ago drained into the main reservoir and been pumped to the surface leaving the entire field dry and worthless.

However when Mrs Bannock’s drill pierced the impervious salt dome of the diapir, a vast subterranean chamber in which the oil deposits had been trapped, the gas overpressure roared up through the drill hole with such force that it ejected almost 8 kilometres of steel drill string like toothpaste from the tube, and the hole blew out. High-grade crude oil spurted hundreds of feet into the air. At last it became evident that the old Zara Nos. 1 to 7 fields which had been abandoned by Shell were only a fraction of the total reserves. The new reservoir lay at a depth of 21,866 feet and held estimated reserves of 5 billion barrels of sweet and light crude.

 

As the helicopter touched down the flight engineer dropped the landing ladder and dismounted, then reached up to his illustrious passenger. She ignored his proffered hand and jumped the four feet to the ground, landing as lightly as the leopard that she so much resembled. She wore a sleekly tailored khaki safari suit with suede desert boots and a bright Hermès scarf at her throat. The thick golden hair, which was her trademark, was unfettered and it rippled in the Khamseen. How old was she? Hector wondered. Nobody seemed to know for sure. She looked thirtyish, but she had to be forty at the very least. Briefly she took the hand that Hector proffered, her grip honed by hundreds of hours on the tennis court.

‘Welcome to your Zara No. 8, ma’am,’ he said. She spared him only a glance. Her eyes were a shade of blue that reminded him of sunlight radiating through the walls of an ice cave in a high mountain crevasse. She was far more comely than he had been led to believe by her photographs.

‘Major Cross.’ She acknowledged him coolly. Once again she surprised him by the fact that she knew his name, then he recalled that she had the reputation of leaving nothing to chance. She must have researched every one of the dozens of her senior employees that she was likely to meet on this first visit to her new oilfield.

If that’s the case, she should have known that I don’t use my military rank any longer
, he thought, then it occurred to him that she probably did know and she was deliberately riling him. He suppressed the grim smile that rose to his lips.

For some reason she doesn’t like me and she makes no effort to hide the fact
, he thought.
This lady is built like one of her oil drills, all steel and diamonds.
But she had already turned away from him to meet the three men who tumbled out of the big sand-coloured Hummvee that braked to a halt beside her and formed an obsequious welcoming line, grinning and wriggling like puppies. She shook hands with Bert Simpson, her general manager.

‘I am sorry it took me so long to visit you, Mr Simpson, however I have been rather tied up at the office.’ She gave him a quick, brilliant smile, but did not wait for his reply. She moved on and in rapid succession greeted her chief engineer and senior geologist.

‘Thank you, gentlemen. Now let us get out of this nasty wind. We will have time to become better acquainted later.’ Her voice was soft, almost lilting, but the inflexion was sharp and clearly Southern African. Hector knew that she had been born in Cape Town and had only taken up US citizenship after she married Henry Bannock. Bert Simpson opened the passenger door of the Hummvee and she slipped into the seat. By the time Bert had taken his place at the wheel, Hector was in an escort position in the second Hummvee close behind him. A third Hummvee was in the lead. All the vehicles had the logo of a medieval crossbow painted on the doors. Uthmann was in the first, and he led the little convoy out onto the service track which ran alongside the great silver python of the pipeline that carried the precious muck a hundred miles down to the waiting tankers. As they drove on the oil rigs appeared out of the yellow haze on each side, rank upon rank like the skeletons of a lost legion of warriors. Before they reached the dried-out wadi Uthmann turned off the track and they climbed a ridge of gaunt rock, sooty black as though scorched by fire. The main building complex was perched on the highest point.

BOOK: Those in Peril (Unlocked)
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