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In the tradition of Clancy, Cussler, and W.E.B. Griffin, newcomer R.E. McDermott delivers a thriller to rival the masters.
When marine engineer and very part-time spook Tom Dugan becomes collateral damage in the War on Terror, he’s not about to take it lying down.
Falsely implicated in a hijacking, he’s offered a chance to clear himself by helping the CIA snare their real prey, Dugan’s best friend, London ship owner Alex Kairouz. Reluctantly, Dugan agrees to go undercover in Alex’s company, despite doubts about his friend’s guilt. Once undercover, Dugan’s steadfast refusal to accept Alex’s guilt puts him at odds not only with his CIA superiors, but also with a beautiful British agent with whom he’s romantically involved.
When a tanker is found adrift near Singapore with a dead crew, and another explodes in Panama as Alex lies near death after a suspicious suicide attempt, Dugan is framed for the attacks. Out of options, and convinced the attacks are prelude to an even more devastating assault, Dugan eludes capture to follow his last lead to Russia, only to be shanghaied as an ‘advisor’ to a Russian Spetsnaz unit on a suicide mission.
Deadly Straits is a non-stop thrill ride, from London streets, to the dry docks of Singapore, to the decks of the tankers that feed the world’s thirst for oil, with stops along the way in Panama, Langley, Virginia, and Teheran. Richly spiced with detail from the author’s 30 years sailing, building, and repairing ships worldwide, it is, in the words of one reviewer, “fast-paced, multilayered and gripping.”
–Scott Nicholson, best-selling author of Liquid Fear
Offices of Phoenix Shipping Ltd.
Local Time: 1900 Hours 10 May
GMT: 1800 Hours 10 May
Alex Kairouz turned from the screen and swiveled in his chair to bend over his wastebasket, barely in time. He vomited as his nausea crested, then slumped head down and sobbing over the basket. A hand appeared, holding a tissue.
“Wipe your bloody face, Kairouz,” Braun said.
Alex did as ordered.
“Mr. Farley, please be good enough to refocus our pupil on the task at hand.”
Alex tensed against the pain as he was jerked upright by his thick hair and spun around to once again face the computer screen. He closed his eyes to blot out the horrific sight and tried to put his hands to his ears to escape the tortured screams from the speakers, but Farley was quicker, grabbing his wrists from behind and forcing them down.
“Open your bloody eyes and cooperate, Kairouz,” said Braun, “unless you want a ringside seat at a live performance.”
Alex looked not at the screen but at Braun.
“Why are you doing this? What do you want? If it’s money— ”
Braun moved his face inches from Alex’s.
“In due time, Kairouz, all in due time.” Braun lowered his voice to a whisper. “But for now, you need to finish our little lesson. I assure you, it gets much, much more amusing.”
M/T Western Star
Eastern Holding Anchorage, Republic of Singapore
Local Time: 1520 Hours 15 May
GMT: 0720 Hours 15 May
Dugan moved through the humid darkness of the ship’s ballast tank, avoiding pockets of mud. At the ladder he wiped his face on a damp sleeve and turned at muttered Russian curses to shine his flashlight on the corpulent chief mate struggling through an access hole. The man’s coveralls, like Dugan’s own, were sweat soaked and rust streaked. The Russian pulled through the access hole with a grunt and joined Dugan at the ladder. Sweat rolled down his stubbled cheeks as he fixed Dugan with a hopeful look.
“We go up?” he asked.
Dugan nodded and the Russian started up the long ladder, intent on escaping the tank before Dugan had a change of heart. Dugan played his flashlight over wasted steel one last time, grimacing at the predictable result of poor maintenance, then followed the Russian up the ladder.
He emerged on the main deck at the tail end of a tropical thundershower so common to Singapore. His coveralls were already plastered to his skin by sweat, and the cool rain felt good. But the relief wouldn’t last. The rain was slackening, and steam from the deck showed the negligible effect of the brief shower on the hot steel. Two Filipino seamen stood nearby in yellow slickers, looking like small boys dressed in their fathers’ clothing. One handed Dugan a wad of rags as the second held open a garbage bag. Dugan wiped his boots and tossed the rags in the bag, then started aft for the deckhouse.
He showered and changed before heading for the gangway, stopping along the way to slip the steward a few dollars for cleaning his room. The grateful Filipino tried to carry his bag, and, when waved away, ran in front, holding doors as an embarrassed Dugan made his way to the main deck. Overtipped again, thought Dugan, making his way down the sloping accommodation ladder to the launch.
He ducked into the launch’s cabin and settled in for the ride ashore. Three dogs in six weeks. He didn’t look forward to telling Alex Kairouz he’d wasted his money inspecting another rust bucket.
An hour later, Dugan settled into an easy chair in his hotel room. He opened an overpriced beer from the minibar, then checked the time. Start of business in London. May as well give Alex a bit of time to get his day started before breaking the bad news. Dugan picked up the remote and thumbed on the television to Sky News. The screen filled with images of a raging refinery fire in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Must be a big one to make international news, he thought.
Offices of Phoenix Shipping Ltd.
Local Time: 1015 Hours 15 May
GMT: 0915 Hours 15 May
Alex Kairouz sat at his desk, trembling, his eyes squeezed shut and face buried in his hands. He shuddered and shook his head, as if trying to physically cast out the images burned into his brain. Finally he opened his eyes to stare at a photo of his younger self — black hair and eyes in an olive face, and white even teeth, set in a smile of pure joy as he gazed at a pink bundle in the arms of a beautiful woman. He jerked at the buzz of the intercom, then struggled to compose himself.
“Yes, Mrs. Coutts?” he said into the intercom.
“Mr. Dugan on line one, sir.”
Thomas! Panic gripped him. Thomas knew him too well. He might sense something wrong, and Braun said if anyone knew—
“Mr. Kairouz, are you there?”
“Yes, yes, Mrs. Coutts. Thank you.”
Alex steeled himself and mashed the flashing button.
“Thomas,” he said with forced cheerfulness, “how’s the ship?”
“What’d you expect, Alex? Good tonnage is making money. Anything for sale now is garbage. You know how it works. You built your own fleet at rock-bottom prices in down markets.”
Alex sighed. “I know, but I need more ships and I keep hoping. Oh well, send me an invoice.” He paused, more focused now, as he glanced at a notepad on his desk. “And Thomas, I need a favor.”
“Asian Trader is due into the shipyard there in two days, and McGinty was hospitalized yesterday with appendicitis. Can you cover the ship until I can get another superintendent out to relieve you?”
“Ten days, two weeks max,” Alex said.
Dugan sighed. “Yeah, all right. But I may have to break away for a day. I got a call from Military Sealift Command this morning. They want me to inspect a little coaster for them sometime in the next few days. I can’t ignore my other clients, even though sometimes it seems I’m on your payroll full-time—”
“Since you brought that up—”
“Christ, Alex. Not again.”
“Look, Thomas, we’re all getting older. I mean, you’re what, fifty now—”
“Forty-seven my next birthday.”
“OK, forty-seven. But you can’t crawl through ships forever. And it’s a waste of talent. Plenty of fellows can identify problems. I need someone here to solve them.”
“OK, OK. I’ll think about it. How’s that sound?”
“Like what you always say to shut me up.”
“Is it working?” Dugan asked.
“All right, Thomas. I give up. For now. But we’ll talk again.”
Dugan changed the subject.
“Ah … she’s …”
“What’s wrong?” asked Dugan.
“Sorry, my mind was just wandering a bit, I’m afraid. Cassie’s fine, just fine. Looking more like her mother every day. And Mrs. Farnsworth says she’s making remarkable progress, considering.”
“And how is the Dragon Lady?” Dugan asked.
“Really, Thomas, I think you two would get on if you gave it a chance.”
“I don’t think I’m the one who needs that advice, Alex.”
“Well, if you were around more and Mrs. Farnsworth got to know you, I’m sure she would warm to you,” Alex said.
Dugan laughed. “Yeah, like that’s going to happen.”
Alex sighed. “You’re probably right. At any rate, I’ll have Mrs. Coutts e-mail you the repair specifications for Asian Trader straightaway. Can you get up to the yard in Sembawang tomorrow morning and begin preparations for her arrival?”
“Will do, pal,” Dugan said. “I’ll call you after she arrives and I get things started.”
Alex thanked Dugan and hung up. He’d maintained a good front with Dugan, and, for that matter, everyone else. But it was draining. The everyday minutia of running his company he’d so enjoyed just a few days ago seemed pointless now — there’d likely be no Phoenix Shipping when this bastard Braun was finished. But that didn’t matter. Only Cassie’s safety mattered. His eyes went back to the photo of his once-complete family, and he shuddered anew as the images from Braun’s video flashed through his memory.
Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Local Time: 1445 Hours 18 May
GMT: 1915 Hours 18 May
Ali Reza Motaki, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, stood at the window, gazing out at the well-manicured grounds. He tensed as his back spasmed. Even in the comfort of the presidential jet, the long flight from Tehran to Caracas had taken its toll. He massaged his lower back and stretched to his full five foot five.
“And is this Kairouz controllable?” asked a voice behind him.
Motaki turned to the speaker, President Hector Diaz Rodriguez of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
“He is devoted to his daughter,” replied Motaki. “He will do anything to keep her from harm. Don’t worry my friend, Braun has it well in hand.”
Rodriguez smiled. “And what do you think of Braun? Is he not everything I promised?”
“He seems … competent.”
Rodriguez’s smile faded. “You seem less than enthusiastic.”
“I am cautious, as you should be. Acting against the Great Satan is one thing. Duping China and Russia simultaneously is another. We cannot afford mistakes,” Motaki said.
“But what choice do we have?” Rodriguez asked. “For all their fine words of friendship, neither the Russians nor the Chinese have acceded to our requests. If we must maneuver them into doing the right thing, so be it.”
Motaki shrugged. “I doubt the Russians and Chinese would view it as mere maneuvering.”
Rodriguez nodded as Motaki moved from the window to settle down in an easy chair across from the Venezuelan.
“And now it is even more critical that we succeed,” Motaki continued. “The damage at the Bandar Abbas refinery is worse than reported in the media. Iran will have to import even more of our domestic fuel requirements, just as the Americans are pressing the UN for tighter sanctions. It is strangling our economy, just as your own lack of access to Asian markets for Venezuelan crude cripples your own.”
“That’s true,” Rodriguez said. “And to be honest, I am concerned we’re using only one company. We are putting all our eggs in one basket, as the yanquis say.”
Motaki shook his head. “No, Braun is right about that. With widely separated attacks, the plan is complicated. Braun’s selection of Phoenix was astute — a single company with ships trading worldwide, controlled by one man without outside directors. Control Kairouz, control Phoenix, no questions asked.”
Rodriguez nodded. “So we proceed. When will Braun confirm the strike date?”
“I got an encrypted message this morning through the usual channels,” Motaki said. “July fourth looks promising. Perhaps we can, as they say, rain on the Americans’ parade.”
“Excellent.” Rodriguez rubbed his hands together. “That will allow me to include some sympathetic remarks in my speech on our own Independence Day on July fifth. Perhaps I can even get an early start in laying these terrible deeds at the feet of the Americans.”
Motaki smiled and nodded. And, perhaps in so doing, become the sacrificial lamb should things go awry, he thought.
Eastern Anchorage, Republic of Singapore
Local Time: 1030 Hours 20 May
GMT: 0230 Hours 20 May
Jan Pieter DeVries scratched his bare belly and looked down from the bridge wing. He wore dirty khaki shorts and a wrinkled shirt hanging open from missing buttons, and was shod in flip-flops. A dark tan and tangle of long brown hair made the thirty-year-old look more like an itinerant fisherman than a captain and ship owner, but M/V Alicia was his free and clear.
At just over two hundred feet, fifteen hundred tons deadweight, and a shallow draft, she was a trim little ship. She’d been well maintained in prior years, when she was named Indies Trader and operated by his stiff-necked family back in Holland. She’d been a “parting gift” of sorts — a convenient way for the family DeVries to prune one of their less desirable branches. It was a parting that suited Jan Pieter as well. Even with no maintenance, Indies Trader could trade years before cargo surveyors questioned her seaworthiness — longer in remote ports of Asia, far from the disapproving oversight of the family DeVries. She was perfect for his plan — just as he’d promised a broker named Willem Van Dijk.
He renamed the ship Alicia, after a girl whose last name he’d forgotten but whose sexual appetites and flexibility were vivid memories. He moved his first cargo for Van Dijk and never looked back. The broker handled everything, and each voyage included clandestine calls at remote anchorages where illicit goods changed hands, with revenue split between the partners.
As crewmen left on vacation, Van Dijk arranged Indonesian replacements, among the first a competent chief mate named Ali Sheibani. Soon Sheibani was running the ship, and DeVries became a pampered passenger, spending little time on the ship in port and sea passages in his cabin, listening to music through state-of-the-art headphones, smoking dope, and reviewing his burgeoning account balances. M/V Alicia had perhaps five years of life left, assuming breakdown maintenance, then he would scrap her and retire a rich man.
But first he must satisfy the US Navy. He peered down into the open cargo hold, where Sheibani escorted three men, two in blue coveralls and a third in white. A blue-clad figure looked up and DeVries nodded, receiving a return wave before the man lowered his gaze and turned to speak to his companions. The other men laughed. At least they were in a good mood.
Dugan watched as Petty Officer First Class Doug Broussard US Navy, returned the Dutch captain’s nod with a wave.
“Captain Flip-Flop reached the bridge,” Broussard said. “So much for his participation.”
Dugan and the third man in his party, Chief Petty Officer Ricardo “Ricky” Vega, USN, laughed.
“Probably just as well,” Vega said, nodding to a small man in coveralls talking to a crewman nearby. “The chief mate there seems to be running the show.”
Broussard nodded. “Yeah, he seems OK. But I wish his English was better.” He leaned closer. “But what about the ship?”
Vega shrugged and turned to Dugan.
“What about it, Mr. Dugan?” Vega asked. “You’re the expert.”
Dugan shook his head and looked around. “She’s not quite in the crapper yet, but she’s on the way down. Give Flip-Flop up there a few years and you’ll be wearing snowshoes to keep from crashing through the frigging deck.” He paused. “Tell me again why we’re inspecting this greyhound of the seas.”
Vega grimaced. “Mainly because we got no choice. We got a SEACAT exercise scheduled off Phang-Nga, and our boats and gear got off-loaded here in Singapore by mistake, instead of up in Thailand. If we don’t pre-position the boats so the Royal Thai Navy guys get some hands-on with us prior to the exercise, it’s gonna be a cluster fuck. We can’t run up under our own power, ’cause the Malaysians and Indonesians have a hard-on about unescorted foreign gunboats in territorial waters.” Vega paused. “Alicia here is all that’s available that can meet our time frame.”
Vega looked around the cargo hold again and shook his head. “Thing is,” he continued, “she falls outside our normal chartering criteria. That’s why MSC wanted a third party to give her a clean bill of health before we take her.”
“So basically,” Dugan said, “the MSC chartering pukes want someone to blame if the fucking thing sinks.”
Vega grinned. “Pretty much, yeah.”
Dugan sighed and looked pensive. “OK, look,” he said, “her inspections are current, and the firefighting equipment was serviced last month. We’re talking a two-day run in good weather and sheltered water, never out of sight of land, with a dozen ports of refuge. She’s not the Queen Mary, but I guess she’ll do.”
Dugan finished as Sheibani, the chief mate, approached. “You like ship, yes? You want us fix something? You tell me, no problem.”
“We’ll need some pad eyes welded to the deck for securing gear. You have chalk we could use to mark the locations?” Dugan pantomimed marking.
“You wait,” Sheibani said, palms outward in the universal sign for “wait” as he shouted up to a crewman on main deck who scurried away.
As they waited, Broussard pointed at the booms. “Those look way too small, Chief.”
Vega turned to Sheibani. “Your booms. How many tons?”
“Three tons,” Sheibani said. “Both booms same. Three tons.”
Vega nodded. “The boats with cradles weigh twenty tons. We’ll need shore cranes at both ends.”
“No problem here in Singapore,” Broussard said. “I’ll get on the horn to Phang-Nga.”
Sheibani looked up at a shout and stretched with easy grace to catch a piece of chalk sailing down from main deck. He turned. “You show. I mark.”
Dugan unfolded a sketch, and they started through the hold.
Chief Mate Ali Sheibani, AKA Major Ali Sheibani, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, seconded to Qods Brigade for the work of Allah, praised be His Name, in Southeast Asia, watched the infidels’ launch depart as he attempted to ignore the nervous captain beside him.
“This is too risky, Sheibani,” DeVries repeated.
Sheibani sneered. “A bit late to develop an interest,” he said in perfect English.
DeVries bristled. “I’m the captain and owner. I’ll cancel the charter.”
“Try, DeVries, and both your captaincy and your ownership will come to an unpleasant end.” Sheibani glanced at nearby seamen. “You might, with a little help, fall into the hold. A tragic, but not infrequent, occurrence. Go now. Go play your music and smoke your dope.”
He turned his back, and Captain DeVries, master after God of M/V Alicia, slunk away.
Sembawang Marine Terminal, Republic of Singapore
Local Time: 0830 Hours 22 May
GMT: 0030 Hours 22 May
Dugan stood on Alicia’s main deck and glanced at his watch. Balancing two clients simultaneously was always a challenge, but he had a bit of time before Alex’s ship was high and dry and the shipyard was only five minutes away. He looked down into the hold through the open hatch, watching as the second boat landed beside her already-secured twin. Longshoremen swarmed, unshackling the slings and securing the boat. Dugan nodded approval as Broussard supervised the process.
“Sweet boats, Chief,” Dugan said to Chief Petty Officer Vega, who stood beside him. He pointed to a steel container secured aft of the boats. “Firepower in the container?”
“Can’t have a gunboat without guns,” Vega said.
“Isn’t that risky?” Dugan asked. “I mean, with all these people involved.”
Vega shook his head. “We couldn’t keep this quiet, anyway. We figure to let everyone see her leave with our guys riding shotgun. The raggedy-ass pirates in the strait like softer targets. We’ve hidden tracking transponders in each of the boats with a backup on the ship, and Broussard will report in every six hours.”
Dugan nodded and extended his hand. “OK. It looks like everything’s in hand here. I have one of Phoenix Shipping’s tankers going on drydock this morning, and she should be almost dry, so I’ll head back to the yard. When will Alicia sail?”
Vega took Dugan’s hand. “At this rate, they’ll finish by midnight and sail at first light.” He grinned. “Presuming they can drag Captain Flip-Flop out of whatever whorehouse he’s in.”
Dugan laughed. “OK. I’ll stop by tomorrow morning and see she gets off all right. It’s on my way to the yard, anyway.”
“See you then,” Vega said.
Neither noticed a crewman squatting behind a winch, pretending to grease it.
M/T Asian Trader
Sembawang Shipyard, Republic of Singapore
Local Time: 0930 Hours 22 May
GMT: 0130 Hours 22 May
Third Mate Ronald Carlito Medina of the Phoenix Shipping tanker M/T Asian Trader pushed his way down the narrow gangway, ignoring the protests of oncoming workers as he squeezed past. He paused on the wing wall of the drydock, captivated by the controlled chaos unfolding far below. Mist filled the air as workers blasted the hull with high-pressure water, and he watched the American Dugan race into the bottom of the dry dock, the shipyard repair manager in tow. Dugan stopped and pointed up at the hull as his voice cut through the din of machinery, demanding more manpower. The yardman responded with that patient Asian nod indicating not agreement but “Yes, I see your lips moving.” Medina smiled as he turned to move down the stairs to sea level and dry land beyond.
Dodging bicycles, trucks, and forklifts, he made his way to the main gate and a cab for the Sembawang MRT station, and minutes later sat in a train car, backpack between his feet as he leaned back and dozed. He could have been a student or civil servant on his day off—anything but a Jihadist intent on Paradise. But then little was as it seemed.
He was born to a Christian father and Muslim mother, and official records listed him as Roman Catholic but orphaned in his infancy, he was adopted by his Muslim grandparents. A fiercely proud man, his grandfather called him Saful Islam, or Sword of Islam, and set about bringing the boy up properly, intent on erasing the stain on the family name left by his daughter’s marriage to an infidel.
At the age of twelve, and with his grandfather’s blessing, young Medina joined the Abu Sayyaf freedom fighters in the service of Allah, where his non-Moro appearance and official identity were considered gifts from Allah to blind the infidels’ eyes. He was a resource, and a valuable one, and the leaders of Abu Sayyaf reckoned he would be more valuable still if he had a legitimate cover to roam the world. When the time was right, Ronald Carlito Medina entered the Davao Merchant Marine Academy.
Medina started awake as the train jerked to a stop in Novena station. He dashed off the train and up the escalator into Novena Mall, past chain stores and fast-food outlets to settle at a terminal in an Internet café. The meeting with his contact the previous day had been troubling, providing a mission but few resources. And the American Dugan’s almost constant presence aboard Asian Trader was another unanticipated complication. But Allah would provide. He moved the mouse and clicked on a link for the website of the Panama Canal Authority.
Sembawang Marine Terminal, Republic of Singapore
Local Time: 0630 Hours 23 May
GMT: 2230 Hours 22 May
Dugan stood on the dock and watched as Sheibani, the chief mate, manned Alicia’s bridge wing and spoke into a walkie-talkie, and the crew took in mooring lines in response. They got to a certain point and stopped.
“What the fuck’s going on?” asked Chief Petty Officer Vega beside him. “They singled up lines fore and aft and then just stopped, and the friggin’ gangway’s still down.”
In answer to his question, a cab raced onto the dock and skidded to a stop near the gangway. A disheveled Captain Flip-Flop exited the cab, shoved a wad of money through the driver’s-side window, and lurched up the gangway in an unsteady trot. He reached the top to derisive cheers from the crew and disappeared into the deck house, as the crew set about taking in the gangway.
“Christ if that doesn’t look like standard operating procedure,” Vega said as he watched the crew take in the final lines.
“Yeah, I’d have to agree that doesn’t look like it was unexpected,” Dugan said as they watched a tug warp Alicia away from the dock.
“Well,” Vega said, “thank God it’s only two days and that the chief mate seems to have his shit together.”
Dugan nodded silent agreement as he stood beside the navy man and watched Alicia move into the channel. One ship away and one to go, he thought as his mind drifted to Asian Trader sitting on drydock less than a mile away. That was a strange one. Asian Trader had been in the yard over a week and Alex Kairouz hadn’t called once. Alex was a hands-on guy, and though Dugan knew he had Alex’s complete trust, he also knew Alex was incapable of staying aloof from the myriad details of his business. At least he had been that way.
“I guess that’s it then,” said Vega beside him, pulling Dugan back to the present. “Thanks for the help, Mr. Dugan.” Vega extended his hand.
“My pleasure, Chief,” Dugan said, as he shook Vega’s hand. “I guess I’d better get on over to the yard and see what latest crisis is brewing on Asian Trader.
In Transit Northbound, Straits of Malacca
Local Time: 1805 Hours 23 May
GMT: 1005 Hours 23 May
Broussard looked out from the bridge wing over the waters of the strait and suppressed a yawn. His attempt at sleep off watch had yielded catnaps between sweaty awakenings, as the decrepit air conditioning of the four-man cabin he shared with his team had labored in vain. The sun was low now, so maybe nightfall would lessen the strain on the antiquated cooling system. Perhaps Hopkins and Santiago, now off watch, would have better luck sleeping than he and Washington had.
He’d just begun his second six-hour watch, but he was already sweating. The body armor was hot, and he was restrained from shedding it only by Chief Vega’s graphic description of what he would do to anyone who did. Broussard’s single concession to comfort was his helmet strapped to his web gear instead of on his head.
“How do you copy?” asked Washington’s voice in Broussard’s ear, as his subordinate checked in from his position on the stern.
“Five by five,” Broussard said.
He looked up as Sheibani approached with his ever-present smile. Nice little guy, he thought, though he talked like an Asian in a crappy TV movie.
“Mr. Broussard,” Sheibani said, “you sleep very good, yes? Cabin OK?”
“Just fine,” Broussard lied, “thanks for your hospitality.”
“Good,” Sheibani said, squinting into the distance. “What that?”
Broussard followed Sheibani’s gaze and said over his shoulder, “I don’t—”
A light burst behind Broussard’s eyes as he dropped, equipment clattering. Sheibani pocketed the sap and knelt to bind the American’s wrists before rising to move away, his smile now genuine.
Broussard awoke to a throbbing head, the scuffed blue tile of the officers’ lounge cool on his cheek and filling his vision. He was gagged and bound hand and foot, the night sky through the portholes telling him the sun had set.
“Ah, Broussard,” said a strangely familiar voice, “you decided to rejoin us.”
He ignored his pounding head and twisted to look up, then tried to twist away as Sheibani pried his eye wide with thumb and forefinger and a bright light obliterated his vision. He squirmed as Sheibani repeated the process on the other eye.
“Good,” Sheibani said. “Pupils equal and reactive. I feared a concussion. I don’t normally use nonlethal force. It was a learning experience.”
Broussard’s curse emerged as an irritated grunt through the tape covering his mouth.
“Patience, Broussard,” Sheibani said. “I want to hear what you have to say, but first you must listen.”
He barked orders and two crewmen manhandled Broussard into a chair. Hands bound behind, he balanced on the edge of the seat, feet pressed to the deck. Hopkins and Santiago perched nearby, similarly restrained. All were barefoot and stripped to their utility trousers. Broussard’s hope surged at Washington’s absence then died as quickly.
“While you napped,” Sheibani said, “Washington and I chatted.”
Sheibani nodded and his subordinates stepped into the passageway and dragged in a plastic-wrapped bundle, leaving it in front of the three Americans and throwing back the plastic. Washington was face up, blood pooled in empty eye sockets. The severed fingers of one hand, his genitals, and his eyeballs were piled in the center of his massive chest. Ebony skin was flayed in wide strips and blood wept from raw flesh to pool on the plastic. Broussard screwed his eyes shut and fought rising vomit. Hopkins did the same, but Santiago made strangling noises, vomit pulsing from his nose. Sheibani ripped the tape from Santiago’s mouth as the sailor retched on the corpse and then coughed wetly before managing a ragged breath.
Washington had told Sheibani nothing. He had, in fact, spit in Sheibani’s face, sending the Iranian into a rage that ended in Washington’s death. Sheibani regretted his loss of control, but, after some thought, decided Washington would serve him in death as he’d refused to in life. As horrible as the mutilations to the big man’s body appeared, they occurred when he was beyond feeling pain.
“I suspected,” Sheibani lied, “there were tracking devices. Washington provided the locations, maintaining to the end there were three. But I’m a suspicious fellow. I could question each of you, but that would be tedious. Instead, Broussard, I will question you. You don’t know which locations Washington divulged, so you must reveal them all. If you refuse, I kill your colleagues and resort to more painful techniques. Understood?”
Sheibani sighed. “I see you need convincing.”
He drew a pistol and shot Santiago in the head. The man fell, twitching across Washington’s corpse, blood pumping out in a widening circle as Broussard’s screams were muffled by the tape and his attempts to stand thwarted by Sheibani’s underlings. Hopkins stared down in shock, attempting to move his feet out of the spreading blood pool.
Sheibani ripped the tape off Broussard’s mouth. “Now! The locations!”
Broussard tried to spit in Sheibani’s face, but his lips were still glued shut from the adhesive, and spit leaked down his chin. Sheibani laughed and put his gun to Hopkins’s head.
“Wait,” Broussard croaked, forcing his lips apart.
Sheibani prodded Hopkins’s head. “The locations!”
“In each boat,” Broussard gasped, “behind the fire extinguishers, and one in the forward storeroom.”
Sheibani smiled as one of his underlings rushed out. Only then did Broussard understand.
“You didn’t know.”
“I knew the number, not the locations,” Sheibani said, grinning. “You saved us a great deal of time and may be of further use. Cooperate and you two live. Fail to do so and Washington’s death will seem merciful. Consider that as you wait.”
Sheibani left the room and moved up the stairway to the bridge. He passed the captain’s cabin and saw DeVries through the open door, sprawled on his bunk with his headphones, in a funk of blue smoke. He sneered and climbed the last flight to the bridge.
On the bridge wing, he watched in the moonlight as a Zodiac inflatable matched Alicia’s speed and moved alongside. Lines were passed as a rope ladder dropped from main deck, and the transponders were transferred. He confirmed everything was going to plan and rushed back down to the lounge, where two men stood guard.
“Listen well, Broussard,” Sheibani said, producing a small recording device.
Sheibani pushed a button and Broussard’s voice came from the speaker, giving an earlier position report.
“You two,” Sheibani said, “will be placed in a small boat and report in as expected. If you try anything, Hopkins will be killed and you will be taken to a secure location, where it will take you a long, long time to die. Understand?”
Broussard nodded and Sheibani continued.
“Your previous reports were identical. Keep them so. My men have memorized these recordings, both words and tone. If you deviate in the slightest, they terminate the call and shoot Hopkins.” Sheibani smiled. “And you will envy him.”
The crewmen’s smirks confirmed their command of English.
Using the Americans to buy a bit more time was a calculated risk. If his men had to disconnect, and could do so cleanly, Singapore would suspect technical problems, given that the Zodiac was on Alicia’s agreed course. But even if Broussard managed a warning, Sheibani’s men would have plenty of time to kill the Americans and dump their bodies and the transponders before disappearing into the mangrove swamps along the Malaysian coast. And Alicia would be well concealed before the Americans even mounted a search.
First the stick, thought Sheibani, now the carrot.
“We don’t need you, Broussard, but if your help buys us a bit of time, I will spare you both. You will be hostages, eligible for exchange in time. Will you cooperate?”
“Excellent,” Sheibani said as he ordered his men to get the Americans to the boat.
Minutes later, Sheibani stood on the bridge as the Zodiac maintained Alicia’s original course and speed, and Alicia inched to port. When the separation was sufficient, he set a new course and increased speed for his hideout, eight hours away.
Broussard lay on the plywood floorboard as the boat bounced along. They were still bound, their arms in front and their ankles bound more loosely, changed to allow them to inch down the rope ladder into the boat. He faced Hopkins, dumped there after the midnight call, when his resolve to warn Singapore had melted at the sight of the gun to Hopkins’s head. After that, the terrorists had relaxed, dumping the hostages on the floorboards, not bothering to retape Broussard’s mouth. He whispered to Hopkins in the moonlight.
“Donny, can you hear me?”
“Donny, you know they’re gonna kill us, right?”
“I’m warning Singapore on the next call. You with me?”
Hopkins stared at Broussard. He nodded.
“We got one shot,” Broussard said, and he whispered his desperate plan.
Broussard’s ears rang from a slap. “No talking,” screamed the closest hijacker, rolling Broussard so that his back was to Hopkins and taping his mouth. Something hard dug into Broussard’s thigh, and he smiled beneath the tape moments later as he slipped bound hands beneath his leg and felt the shape of his small folding Ka-Bar knife through the fabric. Tiny in the cavernous pocket, his captors had missed the knife. He adjusted his plan.
The outboard stopped, and Broussard was dragged upright and the tape ripped away. The two Alicia crewmen flanked him as opposite the two hijackers that had arrived in the Zodiac held Hopkins up, a gun to his head. The Americans sat across from each other, their bound feet flat on the plywood floorboard as they leaned back against the inflation tubes forming the boat’s sides. One of Broussard’s captors punched speaker mode on the sat phone and dialed Singapore, nodding to Broussard as the duty officer answered.
“Alicia—” began Broussard as Hopkins shot bound hands up to deflect the gun and jammed bound feet down to propel himself straight up, breaking the terrorists’ holds as he flew backward over the side. As anticipated, the men hesitated to fire with Singapore listening, and a heartbeat after Hopkins’s escape, Broussard duplicated his move, screaming “Mayday, terrorists” as he flopped overboard.
The original plan had been to escape in the darkness, with death by gunshot or drowning the likely outcome. The knife changed things.
Broussard stroked downward with bound hands, ignoring muffled shouts and gunfire. At ten feet he fumbled for the knife, forcing himself calm as he put it between his teeth and opened it with his hands. Blade open, he grabbed the knife in both bound hands and slashed the ankle binding to kick for the surface, the knife point extended above him.
The Zodiac was a dark shadow on the moonlit surface, and he kicked for the starboard tube. Just before impact, he lowered his hands, then thrust upward, relying on momentum and arm strength to pierce the tough skin. A maelstrom of bubbles erupted.
The boat listed to starboard as panicked terrorists rushed to stare at the roiling water. Broussard moved under the port bow, farthest from the disturbance, to break the surface with his face, sucking in sweet air. The men were shouting as he floated, hidden by darkness and the overhang of the inflation tube. He submerged again and clenched the knife handle between his teeth, sawing his wrist binding against the blade. With his hands free, he surfaced, unsure of his next move.
The list worsened as the men argued. Broussard had decided to puncture another air chamber when he heard splashes as the terrorists dumped the transponders, followed by the rumble of the awakening outboard. He dove deep, surfacing as the outboard faded to the east, and called out to Hopkins.
“Here. I’m hit bad, ” came a weak reply.
“Hang on, and keep talking,” Broussard shouted, swimming toward the voice. He arrived as his friend slipped below the surface, and he dove, groping until he grabbed an arm. He kicked them to the surface and gulped air as he made out Hopkins’s face in the moonlight, tape dangling from a cheek. Hopkins coughed.
“C’mon, buddy. You can make it. Hang in there.”
“I’m all sh … shot up,” Hopkins said, “… got a full clip into m … me.”
“Knock that shit off, Hopkins. You gotta make it, or Vega will kill me,” Broussard said.
Hopkins rewarded him with a feeble smile before he closed his eyes and spoke no more.
Broussard ran hands over Hopkins’s body, confirming by touch the accuracy of Hopkins’s diagnosis, as he struggled to apply pressure to more wounds than he had hands. The lightening sky found them bobbing in a circle of bloodstained water as Hopkins stared through lifeless eyes. Near exhaustion, Broussard checked for a pulse one last time, then blinked back tears of anger and grief as he closed Hopkins’s eyes and let his friend sink.
An hour later aboard a Super Lynx helicopter of the Royal Malaysian Navy, vectored to the last-known coordinates of the Alicia by the Singapore Operations Center, Broussard looked over the straits and remembered Sheibani’s smirking face.
“Keep smilin’, asshole,” he said, “payback’s gonna be hell.”Continued….Click on the title to download the entire book and keep readingby R.E. McDermott