The little drone made a low buzzing sound, a bit more than a dragon- fly. It was about twice the size of that insect and weighed three and a half ounces.
We were on the roof of a three-story building. The locals would have been unhappy if they knew, but so far, our presence was our little secret.
I’m Tommy Carmellini, and sneaking around is what the CIA pays me for. It’s in my job description somewhere. I was here today with Travis Clay and Joe Bob Sweet, who were what the agency likes to refer to as “covert operatives.”
I watched the drone soar above our heads, watched Clay maneuver it around with the joystick on the control unit until he was sure it was functioning properly and the telemetry was good. I checked the small television screen, adjusted the contrast and brightness, and then nodded at Trav.He flew the drone off the edge of the roof and dropped it gently, stopping at each window as it came up on the monitor.
We thought our guy was in this three-story apartment building—or what had once been an apartment building back when the people of
Somalia paid rent and obeyed laws. They didn’t do either anymore.
Before we went in to get him, we wanted to know where in the building he was and who else was there, and in what rooms.
I watched the monitor over Travis’ shoulder, and when he flew the thing to the next window, I glanced around. We were squatting near a water tank. People on the street couldn’t see us, and people some distance away, or across the street in that dump building, who couldn’t tell who we were or what we were up to.
Mogadishu reminded me of some sections of Newark and Detroit, only worse. Dirt streets, trash, abandoned vehicles and ruined buildings, the stench of raw sewage, dirty people in rags carrying weapons . . . all in all, I thought it looked like hell might look when I got there. Seventeen years of civil war had brought them to this.
Believe it or not, when I joined the CIA I thought I would be spending my time in Europe or Russia or exotic places like China or Istanbul. I did a little of that, sure, but these days it seemed that the third—no, make that the fourth—world had my name upon it. Tommy Carmellini.
Using a device that picked up electromagnetic energy, I checked the satellite transceiver mounted on the roof one more time. It was hot. As amazing as it sounds, someone in the building was on the Internet.
After the drone had looked in every window, Travis flew it back to the roof and we conferred. The third-floor rooms were empty except for one man, who we thought was the guy we were after. Travis stowed the drone in his backpack.
I checked across the roof. Joe Bob Sweet was hunkered behind the re- mains of a chimney, keeping watch on the street below, the main drag.
Like me, Travis and Joe Bob were wearing dashikis and sported unruly beards. They also wore sweatbands that kept long, unkempt hair out of their eyes. Compared to them, I looked like a boot recruit. We smelled as bad as we looked.
I nodded at my two colleagues, who had their backpacks on and their weapons in their hands, then opened the door that led down into the building. I was following the wire from the satellite antenna. The installation expert hadn’t bothered to drill holes in the walls or floors to get the wire out of the way; he had merely unrolled the thing, so it ran down the steep stairs, then along the poorly lit, trash-infested hallway to a closed door. The insulated wire ran under the door.
My little EMI receiver indicated the wire was hot.
Travis and Joe Bob already had silenced MP-5s in their hands. I put the electronic gizmo away and got out my Ruger with the silencer on the barrel. Travis looked at me and I looked at him as I slowly turned the knob on the door. Didn’t see any locks. After all, locks only kept honest people out, and in Somalia, there weren’t many of those folks left alive.
The door moved a millimeter.
I took a deep breath and opened it slowly, oh so slowly.
There was a guy sitting at a table by the window with his back to me. He was staring at a computer monitor; didn’t see anyone else.
I walked across the space between us as slowly and silently as I could. The man must have seen my reflection in the computer screen, because he turned suddenly, startled. I jammed the silencer barrel against his teeth, and he froze.
Travis was right behind me. Joe Bob charged for the open doorway that led into another room, a room we couldn’t see.
Fear. I could see it in the eyes of my guy. He was one scared fella, which was fine with me. He had a right to be. if he even twitched, I was going to kill him as dead as a man can get. Maybe he saw that in my face, because he remained frozen, immobile, as I turned him slightly and began checking him for weapons.
Behind me I heard a single shot, then a stutter from the MP-5. Then, another. I didn’t even turn around.
Travis went charging for the other room. He was in there too long.
“Joe Bob caught one.”
Shit! I thought this floor was empty!
The shot must have been heard all over this building. We had mere seconds.
“Help me,” I said urgently.
Travis whipped out a plastic tie and secured my computer guy’s hands behind his back. Then he pulled out a preloaded syringe from a bag on his belt. “Sweet’s gut shot,” he said. “A fucking kid.”
“Where’d he come from?”
The computer guy was trying to watch Travis and me; his eyes got big as saucers when he saw the syringe. Whatever he had been expecting, that wasn’t it.
Clay didn’t bother pulling up the guy’s sleeve or any of that nurse stuff; he merely jabbed the syringe needle through the dirty shirt straight into the muscle and pushed the plunger.
The guy collapsed before Clay could get the syringe put away. Clay stepped quickly back into the other room.
I stowed the Ruger and checked out the computer, which was an old IBM clone. I was prepared to operate—take out the hard drive—but saw that the computer box wasn’t very big. I jerked the plugs off it, stuffed it into my backpack and carefully put both arms through the armholes.
I ran the three steps into the other room. Joe Bob had taken a slug right in the gut, then put three into the kid’s heart. I merely glanced at the kid, sprawled across a filthy mattress. I saw he was small and dead; his pistol lay near his hand.
Joe Bob was on one knee, bleeding.
“Help me get him up,” I grunted at Travis. The two of us lifted Joe Bob onto my shoulder. He weighed about a hundred and eighty, so I wasn’t going to move fast with him there. “Goddamn fat slob,” I told Sweet as I walked into the other room. Travis picked up the computer guy like he weighed about fifty pounds and tossed him over his shoulder. Clay weighed maybe a hundred and fifty, but it was all muscle and bone.
“We got him,” I said into my headset and received two mike clicks in reply.
Away we went, back the way we had come onto the roof. Kept going to another roof, then another. I wasn’t going fast, not with Joe Bob draped over my shoulder and his MP-5 in my hands. If anyone was curious about the gunshot, they were waiting for the news to find them.
I could hear the chopper coming. Glanced around, saw it and stepped out where the pilot could see me. It was an Italian chopper and carried the markings of an Italian petroleum company.
There was just enough room on that roof. The pilot eased that thing in there slick as a whistle, and Travis tossed our prisoner through the open door onto the floor, then scrambled aboard. The crewman on the chopper helped me with Joe Bob, and then grabbed my hand and I vaulted in.
The floor came up and threatened to hit me in the face.
I turned and glanced at Travis, who was bent over Joe Bob working on him. He didn’t have to say anything to me. I could see Joe Bob’s pasty face and see his eyelids flutter as he tried to remain conscious. We were going to have to get him to a doctor quick or he was going to die.
The bad news was that the nearest doctor and surgical facility were at a French base in Tadjourah, Djibouti, which was at least eight hours away by chopper.
I looked at the unconscious computer guy and wondered if he was worth the life of Joe Bob Sweet, a twenty-nine year old Texan, a Special Forces sergeant on temporary duty with the CIA, an all-around good guy and father of two little towheaded kids.
The chopper flew us northwest toward our base. Joe Bob bled out during the flight. After a while the brown eyes in his chalk face focused on infinity, and Travis and I could get no reaction from him. No pulse. No respiration.
I took a seat by the door and watched Africa go by.
A V-22 Osprey delivered us to the desert two weeks ago, to a site the experts had picked for us. Actually it was in Ethiopia, not Somalia, but I am probably not supposed to say that. I don’t think anyone in the American government asked the Ethiopians if we could use their desert, but I am something of a cynic. It was about as lonely a place as one could find on the planet, and conditions were a bit Spartan. We hammered a tube into the ground to piss in and dug a hole to poop in. We erected four tents, built up dirt berms around them to stop shrapnel and bullets, and between them built a food and ammo dump below ground level. Two of the tents were for the other guys to sleep in, one housed the com gear, and one was mine. All mine. With my own cot and vermin and flashlight. I felt like an Eagle Scout.
We did some serious camping. The sand and dirt got into everything, including our food. We bitched a lot, but that didn’t help. Gave up shaving. and bathing. Worked out every day, cleaned our weapons and played cards. At one point I was $152,000 ahead, but I lost twenty grand and the deed to my ranch the next day when one of the guys filled an inside straight. I tried to keep my gambling wealth in proper perspective; the bastards would never pay off.
This afternoon when we arrived in a cloud of dirt, the other guys got busy refueling the chopper while I sent an encrypted message via satellite telephone to my current—and I hoped temporary—boss, Jake Grafton, head of Middle Eastern covert ops for the CIA, telling him we had Omar Ali and one KIA.
Walk into a room and collect a bullet in the gut from a kid.
Truth was, I suspected, that Joe Bob hesitated half a second when he saw it was just a kid . . . and the kid drilled him while he hesitated.
You can train and train and train until you are eligible for your pension, but in the real world, you are going to hesitate for just an instant.
So the boy shot Joe Bob, and he still had to kill him.
We put Joe Bob in a body bag and settled in with beer to wait for Ali to wake up. He slept the rest of the afternoon.
Our two interrogation experts checked him from time to time to en- sure he wasn’t over-sedated, and we got on with the evening meal, which consisted of MREs and Tabasco sauce. Man, you eat that stuff for weeks; you become a hot sauce junkie.
The interrogation guys, Joe and Skeeter, talked to me over a beer, ensuring they knew precisely the information we wanted from Ali. This certainly wasn’t the first guy this team had snatched and, if the world kept turning, wouldn’t be the last. In fact, snatching bad guys was our mission, why the Company sent us here in the first place. What with all the Islamic fundamentalist rebels, terror groups and jihadists, we were in no danger of running out of bad guys any time soon. Looked like a career to us.
What happened to them after we squeezed them dry kinda depended on how bad each dude was. Real bad actors went into a hole in the ground. Guys from mud-hut villages who were doing the bad-guy thing because they were bored, or it was the only game in town, could be sent to Gitmo, there to rot while American politicians wrung their hands and wept. Gofers and kids and hangers-on could be relocated in the middle of the night and turned loose with an admonition to go forth and sin no more. No one knew if they did or didn’t—sin anymore—but there is a place in this world for hope.
Omar Ali was a case in point. He was the computer geek for a pirate named Ragnar up the coast from Mogadishu. This past summer Ragnar’s boys captured a yacht with four adults on it, two men, two women, and Ali got busy on the Internet trying to find out what these four captives might be worth in the ransom market. Then the gig went sour, somehow, and the pirate captain on the yacht killed all four of them.
So our boy Omar Ali was up to his nuts in conspiracy, piracy and murder. He also knew all about the pirates, who, what, where, when and why, how they operated, and so on. Hence the snatch.
That night we sat in the African dirt, stuffed with food containing enough preservatives to mummify King Tut, which we had washed down with Tabasco sauce and beer, looking at the stars on a black African night while we waited for Omar Ali to wake completely up. We talked about everything on the planet except Joe Bob Sweet. Finally the encrypted satellite phone started buzzing.
It was Jake Grafton, my boss.
Now don’t get me wrong; I personally like Grafton and have worked for him several times through the years. It’s just that the stuff he handled these days was usually red hot, and in dump places, like the Middle East and the horn of Africa. I am on the Company payroll as a tech-support guy, which means I crack safes, plant and monitor bugs, tap telephone lines, diddle with other people’s computers, stuff like that, usually in fairly decent places, like Europe or China or Japan or Australia or Canada or California or Washington or . . . Oops, I’m probably not supposed to mention the stateside stuff. Anyway, Grafton borrowed me from time to time to handle chores for him. Like I said, I liked him well enough but wanted our professional association to be temporary, and the more temporary, the better.
Tonight, after exchanging pleasantries with me, he said, “The Osprey is coming for Ali. Put him and Sweet on it.”
“You want us to find out what he knows before we send him?” “No. That wouldn’t play well in an American court.”
I couldn’t believe it. Just when you think there are no more surprises left in life. “They’re actually going to try this guy? Let him lawyer up and cry for the cameras?”
“Justice thinks they got enough on this dude to lock him up for life. They want to give it a whirl.”
“Yes sir. But after the press release, don’t plan on us going back to
Mogadishu to snatch anyone else. It’ll be impossible.”
“I’m sorry about Joe Bob, Tommy. I’ll write a letter to his wife, and we’ll send someone to see her, get the process started. Ain’t much, I know, but Joe Bob signed on for the king’s shilling and knew the risks.” Sympathy was not one of Grafton’s major virtues. Maybe he had seen too many corpses. “Yeah,” I said.
“Tell the guys to hang tough, Tommy.”
“We need more beer and gasoline for the generator.”
“You got it.”
Omar Ali went flying out of our lives an hour later. After we had off- loaded the fuel drums and some boxes of rations, we put Ali on the V-22 Osprey with his computer. We strapped him to a stretcher and gave him another shot, so he was sleeping like a baby. Joe Bob’s corpse went on, too. The tilt-rotor Osprey lifted off, raising the usual cloud of dirt, and flew away low with its lights off, across the desert toward the sea.
We put on flea powder and cleaned our weapons again and used the hole in the ground.
“Next time it could be you or me,” Travis Clay muttered. “Any one of us. Or all.”
“Yeah,” I said and tossed him another beer.
Gulf of Aden, November 9
At dawn the sea was moderate, with a four-foot swell with a nice distance between the crests. The rising wind occasionally ripped spindrift from the tops. The boat rode well, topping the crests and shipping just a little water over the gunwales and collecting at the bottom.
Mustafa had two men with cans bailing as water accumulated in the boat. There wasn’t much of it, so all it really did was soak clothes and weapons. There were a dozen men, so they took turns bailing. The activity helped keep them warm and alert.
They had left the island of Abd Al Kuri off the coast of Somalia in the middle of the night. Above them was a high overcast layer that hid the stars. Mustafa used a compass to hold a northerly course. It was in the hour or so before dawn that Mustafa first saw stars. The wind freshened.
The handheld radio in his pocket came to life. Mustafa held it to his ear. “She is doing thirteen knots, at coordinates—” and the voice read them off. Mustafa wrote the numbers down, and then repeated them.
Yes, he had them right. He typed the numbers into his GPS, a little rectangular thing not much bigger than his hand, and watched the numbers light up. Now he had a course and distance. Only forty miles. Three- three-zero degrees.
Of course, she was heading northeast, along the coast of Yemen, so he would point a little more to the west to intercept.
Another voice, distinctive. “Mine is at—” and he read off the coordinates. “They will pass each other in two hours and ten minutes.”
There were three other boats in sight in the early light, before the sun rose. They had followed the little light on the masthead. Mustafa turned it off.
The dawn revealed a clear sky and a restless, empty sea. There was a freighter to the east, but Mustafa ignored it and held his course. They were in the sea lanes that ran into and out of the Bab al Mandeb, the asshole of the Red Sea. Only twenty miles wide, that strait handled all the traffic headed to and from the Suez Canal, twenty-three thousand ships a year, almost two thousand a month, an average of sixty-three ships a day. The narrow Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden were a maritime superhighway, perhaps the busiest on the planet—and it was infested with pirates. Pirate Alley, some people called it, and for good reason. Still, ships had to go through these waters to get to the Suez Canal, or else they had to transit all the way around the continent of Africa, down around the Cape of Good Hope, a place that Mustafa had never been but had heard about. Mustafa had never actually seen a world globe, but he had been told all this and had looked at rough sketches in the dirt, and like many illiterates, he had a good memory.
Mustafa al-Said was good at his job and made a fine living working at it. No other job in Somalia paid as well as being a pirate captain, except of course being the pirate sheikh, a warlord, and having a dozen or so captains with their own boats working for you. Pirating was dangerous work, but so was fishing on the open ocean, and pirating paid so much better.
Better to die at sea than starve to death, Mustafa thought.
So here they were, under a cloudless sky, on a wide, empty, restless ocean. The men were looking around in every direction, searching the horizon for a mast, a wisp of smoke, anything. The weather was far from ideal for a pirate ship: Every minute they were here increased the chances that a patrol plane would fly over to check them out. Or that the mast peeking over the horizon would turn out to be a warship.
Mustafa didn’t know how radar worked, but he knew the warships could see through night and fog and his chances of spending the day here at sea undiscovered were slim. Further, he knew the warships could easily outrun his skiff, which normally had a top speed of perhaps twenty knots in a calm sea. In this swell, with ten men and weapons aboard, something less. However, for this mission the boat sported a new engine, one that pushed it at thirty knots when run flat out. The other two boats following him to the left and right were similarly equipped.
Mustafa listened to the steady throb of the engine and smiled. German. For this victim they would need the extra speed.
The men sensed their precarious position, and they were restless, even though they said nothing to Mustafa, in whom they had confidence. He had earned it. He had been to sea fifteen times in the past year and had taken six vessels, which had put plenty of money in the pockets of the men who sailed with him. The men knew his reputation and vied to crew for him. Sixty men had volunteered for this voyage, and he had picked his crew from among them. Some of them had sailed with him before, and he trusted them to obey orders. The others were recommended by powerful men in the village and on the coast, warlords, so he had taken them to preserve his relationships.
He was thinking of relationships now, of the political riptides that ruled the villages along the coast, of the money to be earned, of the protection he needed when ashore to ensure no one stole his money or killed him to take it. He needed a warlord and the warlord needed him.
He also needed the warlord’s organization to ransom the ships and crews he captured. He, Mustafa al-Said, couldn’t demand ransom from shipping and insurance companies spread around the globe, but a warlord could. His was Sheikh Ragnar, and he had the contacts Mustafa lacked. Without a warlord, Mustafa was merely a poor bandit with a boat. With Ragnar, he was a successful pirate, with money and women and a future.
He kept the skiff heading northwest for another hour. He got another call on the radio, from a different fishing boat. His victim had been sighted again. Mustafa updated his GPS.
“They will pass each other in an hour and twenty-two minutes.” Mustafa looked at his watch, then at his GPS. He throttled back a few hundred RPM.
The boat rode better taking the swells at an angle. Mustafa wished he could increase his speed. The faster he went, the less chance he would be intercepted by warships. Still, today he didn’t want to arrive early. Timing would be the key to this capture.
He had sufficient fuel to run all day at this speed, then turn back for the Somali coast this evening and make the village on the island with a comfortable margin.
One of the men pointed out a plane running high, merely a speck against the blue sky. The dawn was here, and in minutes the sun would be rising.
Mustafa checked the engine RPMs, oil pressure, temperature and the boat’s heading. He glanced at the GPS. Soon, he thought. Soon.
“Allah akbar,” he shouted, God is great, and the men responded. One fired his weapon into the air. The reports were flat, lost in the vastness of this wilderness of sea and water. Still, all the men cheered. They were confident and ready. They drank water and ate and stared into the distance, looking for a smudge of smoke, a mast, some telltale mark upon the horizon.
If only they could find that ship . . .
Soon, Mustafa thought.
The captain of Sultan of the Seas was a Brit—all the officers were British, Australian or South African. His name was Arch Penney. In addition to his professional qualifications, which were absolutely top-notch, he had another trait that fueled his rise to the top in the cruise ship business: He had an uncanny ability to remember faces and names. He knew—and used—the names of every officer and man and woman in the crew, and he was quickly memorizing the passengers on this voyage. This morning as the sun peeped over the eastern horizon he was walking the deck, saying hello to early risers. He called most of them by name.
Captain Penney was a few years over forty, looked eight or so years younger and was about five feet eight inches tall. He was tanned from years of standing on open bridge wings and wore his hair short so the sea winds wouldn’t mess it up or put it in his eyes. His looks were only aver- age, but his personality made him unforgettable. His smile lit up his face, and he used it often because he was a genuinely nice guy who liked people. His officers liked to speculate about when he was going to retire from the cruise line and go into politics, where his charisma, personality and phenomenal ability to put faces and names together would undoubtedly be richly rewarded.
What his officers didn’t know was that he had been offered the rank of senior officer of the cruise line, in charge of the operations of all five of its ships, and he had turned down the post. He liked what he did, and he liked having his own ship.
Whenever possible, his wife and children accompanied him on his various cruises. Arch Penney was that rarity, a truly happy man.
Last night, leaving his officers to complete the transit of the Bab al Mandeb, he walked about the passenger lounges murmuring names. “Mr. Bass, Mrs. Bass.” He shook hands, smiled, asked the routine questions about how were they enjoying the cruise, were their accommodations adequate, and how was the service?
A German who still used the old “von” was aboard, Von Platen. He was accompanied by three men who apparently were his lieutenants in a car manufacturing company, Juergen Hoff, a man named Schaffler, and a young man with an unruly mop of hair, Boltz. There were some Italians, an Irish construction mogul named Enda Clancy who was apparently out of the house-building business after the housing market collapse, a retinue of British dowagers and the usual mob of Americans, which comprised about half the passenger list.
Last night he greeted the sisters, Irene and Suzanne, by name, and the Denver radio talk-show host, Mike Rosen, a genial, intelligent man with the demeanor of a college professor in mufti. The Americans liked to be called by their first names, so Arch Penney obliged. “Keith, Dilma, Ari, Buck, Chad, Chuck, Betty, Toby, Obed . . .”
Then there was Meyer Brown, a sixty-something retiree on the make, if Arch’s instincts were right. What he didn’t know was that Irene and Suzanne called Brown “Putty,” since he had made a remark at the bar last night that set them giggling. “I’m just putty in a woman’s hands, al- though everything I have isn’t all putty.”
Brown apparently had an American woman, Nora, in his sights. Nora’s daughter was nowhere to be seen. Brown was hovering over Nora, trying to keep his eyes off the striking cleavage, and entertaining her with stories of his many adventures.
The North African, Mohammed Atom, was reading something and studiously avoiding his fellow passengers, so Arch passed him with only a head nod, which Atom didn’t return. Penney knew Atom’s reputation, that he was an arms dealer to rebels all over the Middle East, including al Qaeda, although no one had yet caught him with enough evidence to prosecute.
This was Arch Penney thought, a typical passenger list for this time of year. Almost no children and many gray heads.
This morning there were only three exercise nuts on the upper deck, jogging to burn off alcohol and last night’s gourmet feast. Penney completed his circuit, greeting the crewmen he met by name, running his eye over everything, and headed for the bridge, where he found his first officer had things well in hand, just as Penney knew he would. The chief officer was Harry Zopp, from South Africa. It was, Penney thought, just a matter of time before Zopp got his own ship.
“Captain,” Zopp said respectfully.
“Harry. How goes it?”
“We’re smack in the middle of the northern eastbound traffic lane. We’re five miles behind an empty tanker, matching his speed, which is thirteen knots. Six other ships on the radar, closest point of approach will be four thousand yards.”
“How are the engineers coming on repairing that evaporator?” “Expect to be finished by noon, sir.”
“Where and when do you expect to pass this tanker that’s ahead of us?” The Sultan couldn’t remain on schedule if she loafed along at thirteen knots for more than a few hours.
Zopp told him, referring to the chart and the radar screen.
Arch Penney nodded his approval.
Zopp handed the captain three sheets of paper stapled together. To- day’s Somali Pirate Update from the NATO shipping center. The captain took the time to read every word.
“November 15, Somali Basin. Latitude 07 01 S, Longitude 041 22 E. Alert Number 165/2011. Warning—Warning—Warning—At 0403 UTC November 15 a merchant vessel is currently under attack by pirates in the above position.
“Alert Number 164/2011.” The position followed. “A Pirate Action Group consisting of 2 x skiff with 5 POB, weapons and ladders reported in the above position.”
There was more, two pages of it. Arch Penney read every entry, taking the time to refer to the chart to check the various positions.
“The murdering bastards are busier than they were last month,” Zopp remarked. “The international task force has a chopper patrolling this sea lane this morning. He went over about twenty minutes ago, heading northeast, probably to check out the Stella Maris.” The Stella Maris was another cruise ship, one that had sailed from Doha and was on its way to the Suez Canal, backtracking the route just traveled by the Sultan. They were scheduled to pass each other this morning.
Penney nodded and handed the report back without comment. He went out onto the open wing of the bridge to catch a few moments of peace before the passengers all woke up and the day really got under way. There was a high overcast and a nice breeze from the west. This time of year the wind wasn’t warm, but it was very dry.
Novembers had wonderful reputations for perfect weather in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The summer monsoon was over, and the heat of the deserts to both sides was beginning to dissipate. Truly, the Red Sea was something special. Without a river running into it carrying silt and debris, it was the cleanest ocean on earth, with clear water and hundreds of coral reefs.
The Gulf of Aden, however, was another matter. This was merely an arm of the Indian Ocean. Windy and choppy this morning.
Captain Penney drew in a deep breath of the wind off the Arabian Peninsula. Clean and dry. “Pure,” the Arabs liked to say, “like Islam.” Penney thought the desert wind smelled empty, like nothing at all. As he stood there, he watched a freighter with rusty sides pass his ship to port on its way into the Red Sea.
Arch finally walked inside the bridge and took a careful look at the radar picture. He spent a few minutes discussing traffic with his first officer.
The radar was always full of contacts; avoiding collisions required the most careful diligence. Harry Zopp was up to the task, Penney knew. He trusted him. Still, he was the captain, legally, morally and ethically responsible for this ship and the lives of everyone aboard her, so he monitored the bridge team in narrow waters, mentally weighing every decision, every order.
Fortunately they were out of the Bab al Mandeb, so the Sultan had more room to maneuver. Not only did the bridge team need to avoid other ships and fishing boats, they needed to be able to outrun and outmaneuver pirate skiffs.
When Harry Zopp had passed the tanker ahead of them and the Sultan was steaming northeastward at nineteen knots, paralleling the coast of Yemen, Arch Penney went below to have breakfast with his wife.
“She’s up to nineteen knots now,” the voice on Mustafa’s radio said. “Should meet the other ship in forty-one minutes.”
Mustafa typed the new coordinates into his GPS. The speed increase meant he was going to be a few minutes late. Just a little. He jammed the throttles forward and adjusted his course.
The men heard the change in the engine’s song and felt the prop bite deeper into the sea. They hung on tightly and ignored the spray coming over the bow when the boat nosed into a swell. Their eyes were on the horizon. Soon.
Suzanne’s husband was dead and Irene wished hers were, so they es caped Denver four times a year by going on ocean cruises. This late autumn cruise from Istanbul to Doha was their thirteenth. Everyone they met on the Sultan tried to think up something witty to say when that number came up in conversation. Actually, comparing numbers of cruises was a popular topic of conversation among the passengers, most of whom, if they were to be believed, spent a significant portion of their lives leisurely sailing from port to port, seeing the planet on a floating luxury hotel.
“I’ve gained four pounds already,” Irene remarked to her sister as they surveyed the choices on the breakfast buffet.
“The ship’s paper says Denver is getting an early winter storm,” Suzanne remarked, because she didn’t want to discuss her weight, which was ten pounds more than Irene’s. After all, the price of the cruise was all-inclusive, so the gourmet food was already paid for; why not eat it? Indeed, so were the drinks. After loading her plate with eggs Benedict, extra ham, a few potatoes, a slice of tomato and just a taste of smoked salmon, Suzanne helped herself to a Mimosa—after all, a little champagne with the orange juice wouldn’t hurt much, would it?—and followed Irene across the dining room to a door that led to the porch overlooking the wake. The table they normally sat at for breakfast was empty, so they seated themselves. The waiter came over immediately, and Irene ordered coffee.
“Oooh,” whispered Irene, staring back through the window at the buffet line, “there’s Warren Bass and his new trophy wife.”
Suzanne eyed the skinny fifty-something babe with obviously fake tits who came in with Bass. He was, Suzanne knew, a Texas oil mogul. Rumor had it the woman with him was his fourth or fifth wife. Her name was Theodolinda, and she said everyone called her “Dol.” Bass was in his mid-seventies, with a full mane of gray hair, which he brushed straight back. He sported a matching mustache in a tanned, lined face. His hair stood up in the back, giving him a comb that reminded Suzanne of a woodpecker.
“She’s had some plastic surgery,” Irene said, scrutinizing Dol Bass, who was helping herself to one little spoonful of scrambled eggs.
“Liposuction, too, probably.”
“I watched her at dinner last night. She didn’t eat four bites.”
“One of those, eh?”
“A gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do.”
“You need a set of tits like that,” Suzanne remarked.
“I’m thinking of getting a set when I get home,” Suzanne continued. “My Christmas present to myself. D’s, I think.”
“Look, there’s Atomic Man.” Sure enough, Mohammed Atom, accent on the first vowel, came strolling into the lounge. He was wearing a blue blazer, a shirt and tie, gray trousers with a knife-edge crease and polished loafers. “He’s from somewhere in Africa, I think. Stole a pile of money from the starving masses and now rides around enjoying it.”
After Atom had seated himself several chairs away on the porch and ordered coffee, the sisters saw Mike Rosen working his way through the breakfast line. He was about five feet nine inches tall, reasonably thin and relatively good-looking. An economist by trade, he held forth on a Denver talk radio station for three hours every morning. He sat down at the table between Irene and Suzanne and the Basses. Irene heard him order coffee from the waiter.
Suzanne looked at her watch. “Thirty seconds . . . a minute . . . ninety seconds . . .”
Just before the second hand showed two minutes, Nora Neidlinger and her daughter, Juliet, came out of the dining room, looked around and zeroed in on the talk-show host. They brought their plates over, and he stood and graciously invited them to join him.
The daughter was addicted to hats with wide brims, which she liked to shape so that the brim hid half her face. Her long brown hair swept down her back. Nora, on the other hand, wore her hair relatively short, the better to showcase her striking features, which people noticed when they tore their eyes from her surgically enhanced figure.
“Double D’s,” Suzanne whispered to Irene. “Mine will be a bit more modest.”
“That’s wise, dear. After all, you have to carry them around.”
The swirling sea breeze played with the brim of Juliet’s hat. She adjusted it.
When Rosen nodded at Nora, she smiled and held his eyes.
“Ten bucks she lands him before Doha,” Suzanne murmured to Irene.
“No bet,” Irene shot back and glanced around for a waiter.
Rosen was making conversation with Nora and Juliet; Suzanne and
Irene couldn’t help but overhear. “Did you take the tour to Luxor?”
“Oh, yes,” Nora said and began discussing the bus ride from Al
Qusayr and the ancient monuments by the Nile.
It was all very pleasant, with the blue sea and the light wind off Arabia and the sun shining down.
Irene winked at Suzanne and asked the waiter for more coffee. Suzanne ordered another Mimosa.
Harry Zopp glanced at the surface radar—and was surprised to see four small targets approaching from the south. They were on a collision course and closing. He picked up the closed circuit telephone, which rang in the captain’s stateroom.
“Pirates, I think,” Harry Zopp said. “Maybe fifteen minutes out.” “Radio the navy and activate the boarding prevention plan,”
Captain Arch Penney ordered, then added, “I’ll be right up.”
Zopp dialed the preset radio frequency into the box in front of him and picked up the handset. “Red Ryder, Red Ryder, this is Sultan of the Seas.”
“This is Red Ryder. Go ahead, Sultan.”
“Looks as if we have four high-speed boats approaching from the south on a course to intercept us. About fourteen minutes out. Over.”
“We’ll get the chopper headed your way. Nearest surface warship is seventy miles northeast of you.”
Two hours, Harry Zopp thought. He used the intercom to call the bosun. “Activate the boarding prevention plan. Pirates less than fifteen minutes away.”
Zopp walked out on the starboard wing of the bridge with his binoculars. He was standing there trying to spot the boats on the horizon when Captain Penney joined him.
“Just got a glimpse of one of them,” Zopp said. “Radar says they are making thirty knots.”
The captain told the helmsman, “All engines ahead full.” Full speed for the Sultan was thirty-one knots, but with the pirate boats on the star- board quarter, there was no way he was going to outrun them on this heading. He went inside the bridge and looked at the moving map dis- play on the GPS. He was twenty miles offshore. If he turned tail to the pirates, he would be heading toward Yemen. He could buy some time, but he couldn’t sail through sand and stone.
Penney glanced again at the radar. He could see the symbol for the Stella Maris, fifteen miles ahead. She would pass down his left side if he kept on this course. “Come left ten degrees,” Penney told the helmsman. This course would take him very near to the Stella Maris. He picked up the radio handset and dialed in the proper frequency, then called Stella Maris. Better tell her captain what was going on.
That was when he got a bad shock. The voice of the Stella Maris’s captain rang in his ears. “Stella Maris is under attack by pirate boats, apparently from Yemen. Three of them. They are shooting up the ship. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”
Lieutenant de vaisseau Gilbert Louceck surveyed the instruments in the cockpit of his Panther helicopter and checked the radar distance readout to the ship currently under attack, eighteen miles from the Yemen coast. In his headset he could hear the captain of the ship calling Mayday in English, and the controller aboard the French destroyer talking to him in French. Long ago he had learned to sort all these voices out. His copilot was answering the controller just now, giving him a range and how many minutes they were from the ship under attack, the Stella Maris. Ten miles to go. A little less than five minutes.
Now he was listening to the panicky voice of the ship’s radio operator. Apparently the captain was busy conning the ship.
“They are shooting at the bridge.” The words were in English, although heavily accented. Idly, Louceck wondered about the speaker’s nationality.
“Now they are approaching again.” While he held the microphone open, Louceck could hear a beating sound that he took to be automatic gunfire. “Three boats. Maybe ten men in each boat.”
Louceck could see the ship materialize out of the haze, which seemed thicker the higher one got. By now he had the helicopter in a descent, accelerating.
“About three minutes, capitaine,” the copilot said, quite unnecessarily.
Automatically Louceck checked his fuel. He had enough to stay over the cruise ship for perhaps twenty minutes, then he would have to fly back to the Toulon, his ship.
“Call the ship,” he told the copilot. “Get them heading this way.” If the ship could close the distance, that would save a few gallons, give him an- other minute or two over the cruise ship.
As the copilot made the call, Louceck turned the safety sleeve on the master armament switch and lifted it, arming the Giat 20 mm cannon carried in the external pod. Just in case. He could see the boats now. He lowered the nose still more, intending to make a low pass.
The pirates knew the game. His orders did not permit him to open fire on the pirates unless they fired at him, which of course they would not do. They knew his orders as well as he did. Still, if he could intimidate them, make them turn away . . .
“I’m taking photos.” That was the crewman in back.
“They are alongside.” The voice was high-pitched, the words nearly impossible to understand. “I leave microphone open and move away from radio.”
The copilot, Pigot, fidgeted in his seat.
Sure enough, now continuous cacophony sounded in the helicopter crewmen’s ears.
A burst of gunfire came over the radio, then the transmission ceased abruptly.
Lieutenant Louceck was at fifty feet, making 180 knots, coming down the port side of the cruise ship. One pirate boat was against the side.
People, all over the ship, running, some leaning over the rail, trying to see. Like ants on a corpse!
Louceck roared right over the pirate boat, then threw the chopper into a hard turn while he pulled up on the cyclic. The chopper quickly lost speed, slowing dramatically as it came around in the turn.
The captain of Stella Maris was holding his ship steady on course. Why didn’t he turn into the pirate boat, force them away from the ship?
While Louceck was wondering, a hole appeared in the Plexiglas to his left. Then another.
“They’re shooting,” Pigot roared into the ICS. His voice drowned out the cacophony coming over the radio.
Automatically Leucock dumped his nose and began accelerating. Fortunately he was pointed right at the pirate boat. His finger found the trigger on the stick and he squeezed off a burst. A handful of 20 mm shells struck the water right beside the pirate boat, then Louceck was overhead and saw a man shooting at him with a rifle, then he was going away, his tail rotor pointing at the danger as the massive slab sides of the ship slid by the cockpit on his left.
She looked like a floating hotel, with rows of balconies and white faces and people waving their arms at him. At him!
Louceck checked the engine instruments and hydraulic gauges. All seemed okay . . . for now. Here he was, over hostile pirates, a hundred miles from the Toulon. If this machine stopped flying, he was going into the sea.
“Any damage back there?” Louceck asked the crewman.
“Don’t see any.” The kid’s voice was none too steady. Well, neither was Louceck’s or Pigot’s.
Louceck climbed and turned again and looked for the other pirate boats, which were on the starboard side of the ship, toward Yemen. They were still fifty yards or so away from Stella Maris, angling in.
Why didn’t the captain turn his ship?
Louceck came smoothly around and lowered his nose for another pass at the pirate boat on the port side, which was still almost against the ship, with ropes and grappling hooks being fired up toward the ship’s railings.
Louceck flew the gun’s pipper into the pirate boat and squeezed the trigger. He held it down, walking it the length of the boat, then released it.
“Don’t hit the ship!” Pigot roared, and automatically Louceck slammed the cyclic left, lifting the right side of his rotor disk. The ship was right there, close enough to touch. He was so engrossed in shooting at the
pirates . . . how he had failed to hit the liner he didn’t know. A miracle.
The pirate boat fell rapidly behind the cruise ship, foundering in the wake.
Louceck crossed the cruise ship’s bow and began a circle of the two other pirate boats. They seemed to be holding their distance from the cruise ship, Stella Maris.
He could hear Pigot talking to Stella Maris’s captain, telling him to speed up and turn into the pirates. He didn’t catch the captain’s reply, but he heard Pigot call him a fool.
Down Louceck went to ten feet off the water, slowing, flying between the pirate boats and the cruise ship.
He had done this a dozen times in the last four months. Prevented the pirates from closing on their victim. Pirates had never before shot at him.
To his horror, the pirates in the nearest skiff were also shooting. He saw at least four men with automatic assault rifles pointing at him, saw the muzzle flashes, felt the bullets striking the helicopter.
He heard the crewman groan on the ICS.
Louceck already had picked up the tail and was accelerating away. He would come around and sink this boat, too.
Halfway through his turn Pigot pointed to the left engine instruments. The engine was overheating, losing power. Now he looked back as he turned. Black smoke behind him.
Falling oil pressure.
The crewman was on the ICS. “I’m hit,” he said. “In the leg.”
Pigot began unstrapping as Louceck shut the left engine down and turned toward the Toulon, one hundred miles away. Pigot maneuvered himself out of his seat and went aft to look after the crewman.
Damn, damn and double damn.
Mustafa and his pirates had Sultan of the Seas in sight. He was on her beam. She was making at least twenty-five knots. He had to hold in eighty degrees of lead as he closed to keep her from moving to his front.
The men in the boat grasped their weapons. A few fired short bursts into the air in celebratory anticipation. The reports sounded flat.
Mustafa’s radio was alive in his hand. He could hear the other boats attacking Stella Maris talking to each other. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the helicopter had left trailing smoke. One skiff sunk. If anyone who had been aboard was still alive, he was on his own; Mustafa needed all his boats if he hoped to capture a cruise ship. The men knew that, knew the risks, and had come anyway. At least there were two more skiffs to harass Stella Maris, which was only ten miles to the northeast.
“Mustafa, this is Ahmed.”
“We are closing from the north on Sultan. Do you have us in sight?” “No.”
They had the cruise ship in a classic trap. Pirates were closing from two sides, so whichever way Sultan of the Seas turned, she would be intercepted.
Yes! The plan was working!
Captain Arch Penney was facing his worst nightmare: a pirate attack on his ship. He had two boatloads of pirates to port and four to starboard. Ten miles ahead, two or three pirate boats were attacking another cruise ship.
Penney was on the radiotelephone to the Task Force 151 tactical action officer on duty this morning. The navy guy had a calm, baritone American voice.
“Nearest surface warship is an hour and a half away,” the American navy dude said, “but we will have a helo overhead in twenty minutes.”
Penney handed the phone to Harry Zopp and consulted the computer screen that showed all the surface targets in the area, their course and speed, and the prediction of where they would be in a minute, or five or ten, if they didn’t change course or speed. The computer’s information was derived from the radar. The computer operator had to designate which targets were which.
Arch was not without a plan. He and the other captains of the cruise line, together with the senior captain, had worked out a contingency plan for just such an attack and presented it to management, which had insisted upon some changes designed to protect the company from lawsuits, then approved it.
The plan was the Plan. Unfortunately cruise ships did not carry weapons of any kind, not even a pistol to take down a raving, homicidal berserker. So the Plan relied upon speed and mild maneuvering to keep boatloads of armed, homicidal pirates at bay. However, the cruise line was not willing to have the pirates slaughter a great many of its customers, so if the pirates persisted in shooting into the cruise ship, the captain was supposed to surrender, on the theory that the pirates would then ransom ship, passengers and crew. It all sounded very logical in the boardroom of the cruise company in London.
“We have insured against the risk,” the chairman told Captain Penney. Ah, yes. Insurance. Even if the company had to refund fares and ransom ship, passengers and crew and pay a few families damages because they lost a family member, the cruise line wasn’t going to lose money. Comforting, that.
Sultan of the Seas carried 490 passengers and 370 officers and crew. Eight hundred sixty defenseless people. Still, the international task force, Task Force 151, was out there on patrol, just over the horizon, ready to intimidate those naughty pirates and protect honest people from violent, unwashed, starving Africans.
“Don’t worry, Captain,” the chairman had said. “You can outrun them. The allied navies can deal with them.”
Arch Penney looked again at the computer display. If he maintained this course and speed, the helo would arrive eight minutes after the pirates.
Eight minutes. How many people would the pirates maim and kill in eight minutes?
He picked up the mike for the ship’s public address system and flipped it on.
“This is the captain. As you may know if you are on the weather decks, we are being intercepted by at least six small boats, which may contain pirates. We will do all we can to protect you and this ship. I request everyone to clear the weather decks and move to the interior of the ship, away from the windows, balconies and portholes. If your stateroom has a balcony, please step out into the passageway and remain there. I will keep you updated.”
He switched off.
Harry looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Going to panic the old pussies, aren’t you?”
Arch Penney shrugged and used his handheld radio to call the bosun. “Are you ready?”
“Use the LRAD whenever they get in range.” The Long Range Acoustic Device aimed a powerful sound blast in a narrow cone. At one hundred yards, the high-pitched wail was painful. At fifty yards, it was capable of rupturing eardrums. The ship had four LRADs installed, two on each side.
Now Penney asked the computer operator, “Where’s that chopper?”
“One-two-two degrees true at forty-eight miles.”
“Twenty-eight knots and increasing,” Harry Zopp said. “We are full ahead, sir.”
“Very well. Helmsman, use slow rate on the turn and come starboard to course one-two-zero degrees. Steady on it.” These new cruise liners had no rudder, but instead had engines in pods mounted below the hull. The helmsman was actually turning the pods. Maneuvering up to a pier, the pods allowed the ship to be turned in its own length and dispensed with the necessity of using tugboats.
“Slow rate on the turn,” echoed the helmsman. “Come starboard and steady up on one-two-zero degrees, sir.”
The slow rate of turn wouldn’t tilt the deck very much, although the ship would take a while to get through the turn. With luck, Arch Penney thought he could get the pirates into his rear quarter. At the very least, the last two boats, out of Yemen, would be behind him in a tail chase.
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Buck Peterson was the pilot in command of the Sikorsky MH-60R on its way toward the two cruise ships under attack by pirates.
This had started out as just another day at sea, with coffee and eggs and reams of paperwork awaiting his attention. USS Richard Ward only carried one helo, three pilots, two enlisted crewmen and two aviation mechanics. As the senior aviator, this meant he owned the flying ma- chine and the officers and men—and was responsible for everything.
When the call came from the task force commander, he had mounted up with the senior copilot and senior crewman, a first class named Wilsey. The captain already had his ship on a rendezvous heading, and he turned into the wind just long enough to let the chopper lift off.
Now Buck Peterson was on the radio to the flagship. Pirates had fired on a French Panther over Stella Maris, and the Frenchie had sunk one boat, then retired. Still iffy whether he was going to make his base ship or go into the drink. Two boats were still shooting at Stella Maris; the captain was in a panic, but he said he thought he could outrun them. He was slowly pulling away, leaving them behind.
The flagship gave Peterson a heading to Sultan of the Seas. It was being intercepted by six boats, which had it boxed.
“Wilsey, you got that gun loaded?” Buck asked on the intercom.
“Yes, sir.” As crewman, Petty Officer Wilsey was in charge of the helicopter’s only defensive armament, an M-60 machine gun mounted in the door. It wasn’t a cannon, but it threw a nice stream of 7.62 mm NATO slugs that could slaughter a boatload of pirates in seconds. Peterson had never had to order the gunner to fire; the sight of the gun pointed their way was always enough to dissuade even the most ardent buccaneers. There was just nowhere to hide, nothing to get behind, in an open boat. Every single pirate thought that gun barrel was pointed precisely at him.
Peterson checked the mileage to the Sultan while he listened to her captain talking on the radio to the Task Force 151 duty officer aboard the flagship.
Peterson’s copilot was Crash Pizzino, a big rangy man with a wicked sense of humor. He wasn’t smiling now. He was tightening his straps, running through the checklist, securing loose objects in the cockpit. Crash was also listening to the Sultan’s captain describe the tactical scene, the pirate skiffs closing in . . .
“My God, Suzanne! Pirates!”
“We could be in Hawaii this very minute, sister of mine. I wanted to go to Hawaii. Remember?”
“We’ve been to Hawaii five times,” Irene said distractedly. They were crammed into a passageway just forward of the ninth deck aft dining room and the outside portico where they had eaten breakfast. Someone had spotted the open boats on the horizon, and people had idly turned to watch as the skiffs closed on a collision course. Then the captain had galvanized everyone into action.
Chairs were scooted back; people hurried to get inside the ship, away from the windows and open decks. Now Suzanne, Irene, Mike Rosen,
Nora and Juliet were packed together in the passageway along with al- most two dozen other people. A cook was also there—he looked like a Filipino—and he was obviously frightened. One of the crewmen spoke to him sharply in a language Suzanne and Irene didn’t understand, and the man calmed down somewhat.
Suzanne got tired of standing. She sat down on the deck and put her back against the passageway wall, or bulkhead, or whatever they called it. Irene joined her on the deck but kept her legs tucked under her. Suzanne was not limber enough and let hers stick out straight. Actually, she thought, for a woman of my age, they aren’t bad legs.
“Hawaii,” Suzanne grumped. “Egypt is filthy, the Egyptians are filthy, Aqaba is a dump. No human in his right mind would pay money to ride that damn bus across the desert to Luxor. I still can’t believe we did it. See Aqaba was number nine thousand and twelve on my Before-I-Die Bucket List.”
“Scratch it off.”
“You won’t admit it, but this is the worst cruise we’ve ever been on. Pirates, no less!”
Irene sighed. “Next time, Kaanapali Beach.”
“You bet your ass,” Suzanne shot back.
Sultan’s turn seaward, into his little squadron of onrushing boats, gave Mustafa al-Said a bad moment. The ship kept turning, and he tried to turn away, then buttonhook back and come alongside, but the constantly changing course made that impossible. Now the ship was doing at least thirty knots. Mustafa’s engine was howling at the red line, and the skiff seemed to leap from swell to swell. Two of the boats couldn’t make this speed, but the turn into them had given them a chance.
Finally Sultan steadied up on a southeasterly course, directly away from the land. The captain instinctively went for sea room, Mustafa realized, although that would do him no good. The four pirate boats in front of him converged.
Mustafa S-turned once and then bore in for a rendezvous on the liner’s starboard side. He well knew if he fell astern he could never catch
Sultan. He swept in, turning hard to parallel, keeping his boat closing. Another boat was ahead of him and went in fearlessly against the side of the ship.
Then he heard the noise. High-pitched, a scream, rising in volume. He put on his sound-suppressor headset, a simple set of mufflers, one over each ear, as the other men in the boat hastily pulled theirs on, too.
Mustafa could hear the wail anyway. It was insanely loud.
The men began shooting at the LRAD installations. A sailor stood behind each unit, aiming it at the nearest pirate skiff.
“Kill them, kill them,” Mustafa screamed, but no one heard it.
Nuri was manning the machine gun, and he bent down and tried to aim, which was difficult in the bucking, heaving boat. He began firing bursts at the LRAD units.
The sailors manning the LRAD units disappeared. Probably down behind the railings. Two more long bursts, then the sound stopped.
The skiff nearest the ship was not under control. The helm wandered; the boat nosed in against the towering side of the Sultan, was caught in the wash and overturned instantly.
Mustafa ignored the pirates in the water. If they drowned, they drowned. They were in it for the money, just as he and his men were. If Mustafa didn’t press the attack, there would be no money for anyone.
“The bridge,” he shouted to his men and pointed. Three of them fired AK-47s at the bridge.
Radio talk-show host Mike Rosen was not huddled in a passageway in- side the ship. He didn’t have it in him. He was on the eighth-deck gallery, and from his vantage point he could see the sailor manning the amid- ships LRAD transmitter. He heard the wail, of course, but it was focused on the pirate boats, so it was merely unpleasant.
Rosen saw the machine-gun bullets striking around the unit, saw the sparks, felt the impacts, and he saw the sailor, an officer apparently, fall heavily to the deck.
More bullets. The sound stopped.
The man on the deck wasn’t moving. Staying below the railing, Rosen hurried to him in the classic combat waddle. Bullet holes everywhere. He turned the officer over. He had been hit at least four times. Some blood, but not much. The officer’s eyes were frozen, focused on nothing at all.
At least one of the machine-gun bullets had hit the main transmitter.
Rosen abandoned it and waddled back toward his vantage point, a small gap in the railing that allowed him to watch the pirate boats. He saw the one turn in against the ship and be flipped over by the ship’s wash. Men spilled into the water, men without life preservers.
Below, on the fifth-deck gallery, between the lifeboats, Rosen caught glimpses of men connecting fire hoses to fixed, movable nozzles, nozzles aimed over the side. They tried to stay below the railing, out of sight of the pirates.
Mustafa’s skiff was a couple of knots faster than the Sultan. It was just enough to allow it to get closer and closer. The men fired long bursts at the bridge; glass cascaded from the windows, a little shower of shimmering reflections.
Now the distance to the ship, less than a hundred yards, began to close quickly. The Sultan was turning into him! Faster than thought, Mustafa spun the wheel to bring his bow starboard . . . and the distance began to open.
The machine gun kept burping short bursts. The men with the AKs hosed off whole magazines.
Now the Sultan veered left; Mustafa saw her heel. He heard a scream on the radio. Then silence.
One of the other boats gave him the news. Sultan had swamped an- other of the pirate skiffs, then had run over her.
Sultan was steadying again. Mustafa veered in fearlessly to give the machine gunner a better target.
“The masts. The antenna. Shoot them off,” he roared over the thunder of the engine and guns at Nuri on the machine gun. That was the plan, but in action men forgot things. The pirates with AKs never aimed them. They held them hip high and squirted. Even shooting from the hip in an open boat bucking the swells, the ship was too big to miss. The AKs merely scared people and broke windows, which was fine because scared people surrender quickly.
His boat was about ten yards from Sultan when streams of water under intense pressure shot forth. Hard, narrow rivers of water. One of the streams hit the boat, and Mustafa went down. He hung on to the wheel as the stream of water went forward in the boat, threatening to swamp it and sweeping two men over the side.
Mustafa veered away just in time.
The engine still ran fine. Men were bailing like mad.
One of the men had an RPG-7 launcher. He brought it to his shoulder, then waved at Mustafa, who cranked the wheel over and once again started in toward the ship.
The third grenade did the trick. It burst the last of the movable nozzles and let water merely pour over the ship’s side.
How much longer? Mustafa asked himself. The captain must be thinking of the passengers and crew—and, of course, his own life, the infidel dog.
Better scare them some more. Mustafa saw Ahmad looking at him, a silent question. He had the rocket-propelled grenade launcher reloaded. Mustafa gestured toward the bridge.
This RPG hit behind the bridge, went through a big window and made a nice bang. Glass and smoke blew out.
Buck Peterson kept the Sikorsky coming down. The pirates were shooting up the ship. They were not yet aboard. The ship was at flank speed.
Now Buck saw the pirate boat on Sultan’s starboard side. It was the closest, so he went for it. Began slowing his chopper, coming around so that he could fly between the boat and the ship. Fortunately that put his door-mounted gun on the side of the pirate boat.
“Get ready, Wilsey. Fire a burst into the water short of their boat.” “Aye aye, sir,” Wilsey said, as if he had been asked to make coffee. That Wilsey was a good man, cool under pressure. Buck wished he had Wilsey’s kind of calm.
He brought the Seahawk around and came up the wake, nearly over the ship. Heard the M-60 vomit out a burst, saw it turn the water to foam near a pirate boat.
That ought to sober up the bastards.
Buck Peterson was over the ship’s railing, amidships, with the pirate boat on his beam, when an RPG exploded inside the Seahawk. The explosion was unexpected, violent, and the chopper began to buck.
Right engine . . . losing power! Hydraulics going . . . warning lights flashing.
Buck Peterson turned away from Sultan, the only thing he could do, right across the pirate boat, and picked up his tail trying to gain speed.
He felt the thumps as bullets smashed into the Seahawk, then realized he couldn’t keep the machine in the air. He tried to lower the tail to cushion the impact with the sea.
It wasn’t even a controlled crash. The impact of the collision with sea- water at speed collapsed the windshield and killed Peterson and Pizzino instantly. Petty Officer Wilsey was already dead, killed by the RPG.
The splash site soon subsided into a roiling mass of bubbles as the Sultan and Mustafa’s boats swept away at thirty knots.
Arch Penney’s hopes sank with the remains of the Sikorsky. The American duty officer said there were no more helicopters available and the destroyer Richard Ward was over an hour away. The safety of his passengers and crew weighed heavily upon the captain.
Just as his hopes reached low ebb, the radio squawked again. “Sultan, we have jets ten minute away.”
Harry Zopp replied, “The pirates are shooting machine guns into this ship and launching grenades. We are defenseless. Do you people under- stand that?”
“We are unable to contact the helicopter that was in your vicinity. Is it still there?”
“The pirates shot it down. It crashed into the ocean.”
“Roger.” The voice was tired, cold.
Penney grabbed the radiotelephone from his chief officer. “Are these jets going to just fly around, or will they do something to actually defend this ship and the nine hundred people aboard her?”
“We are assessing the situation.”
“Bloody Yanks,” Harry Zopp said.
Another burst of machine-gun bullets thudded into the bridge ceiling. Penney and his bridge team were huddled on the deck, out of the line of fire. The helmsman was sitting on the deck, reaching up to turn the steering controls. The RPG had exploded behind the bridge in the navigator’s office; now a small fire was emitting acrid smoke. Fortunately no one on the bridge had yet been killed, although one sailor had some shrapnel in a leg from the grenade blast. Penney wondered if any of the passengers had stopped a bullet. No, he thought, the question was, How many?
There would be more grenade blasts, Penney thought bitterly. This wasn’t a warship; his crewmen weren’t trained warfighters. Hell, they didn’t have any weapons to fight with. And the passengers: For Christ’s sake, they were mostly middle-aged and old men and women, from all over the world. The only thing they had in common was the fact they could afford the fare for the cruise.
Another hatful of machine-gun bullets arrived and took out more of the forward glass. There wasn’t much glass left. Little pieces of insulation rained down from the damaged ceiling. The sea wind swept the bridge.
Penney sneaked a peek over the railing. One of the skiffs, the one with the machine gun, was close on the starboard side, no more than fifty yards away. He scuttled across the bridge and looked on the port side. Two boats there, closing. With his naked eye he could see the men in the boat wrestling with a grenade launcher.
“Eight minutes,” Harry Zopp said, glancing at his watch.
Two more grenades slammed into the ship. Penney felt the thuds the explosions created.
Huddled under the rail on the port wing of the bridge, the captain thought he heard a woman screaming. It was high-pitched, and faint.
The Task Force 151 commander was U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Toad
Tarkington. He stood in the tactical flag spaces aboard his flagship staring at the flat-screen situation display. The French chopper had been shot up over Stella Maris but was still airborne, on its way back to its mother ship. The American Seahawk had ceased transmitting; Sultan said the pirates shot it down.
Tarkington took a deep breath. The pirates really wanted these ships and were betting everything they could get them. Fortunately Stella Maris looked as if she were outrunning the two skiffs that had attacked her.
Two F-18s patrolling from a carrier three hundred miles to the north, toward the Persian Gulf, were on their way. Fuel would be tight. They could stay over Sultan for no more than five minutes. The carrier was launching a tanker, but it was at least a half hour behind the fighters. If the fighters stayed over Sultan until the tanker arrived, they would be lost if they couldn’t take fuel from the tanker, for any reason. Should he risk two planes and the lives of two pilots by keeping them over Sultan? Should he order the pilots to shoot at the pirates?
Tarkington knew the Rules of Engagement cold, and he understood the political climate in which he operated. He would create an international incident if he ordered the jets to use their weapons, an incident that would probably have serious political repercussions in European capitals, perhaps jeopardizing the continued existence of the antipiracy task force. On the other hand, the pirates had shot at his helicopters, perhaps killed the crewmen. He had spent his career in the U.S. Navy; self-defense was instinctive, institutional, ingrained. Overaggressiveness in the face of a threat could be forgiven; excessive caution, never. Then there were all the people on that cruise ship . . .
Toad Tarkington made his decision. “Tell Sea Wolf flight to sink the pirate boats. Weapons free.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Lieutenant Commander Dieter Gerhart was leading Sea Wolf flight. Lieutenant ( junior grade) Tom Borosco was on his wing. Gerhart listened to the his orders, then asked Borosco, “You get that, Tom?”
“You take the boats on the land side, I’ll take the boats on the seaward side. Strafe and sink them.”
Gerhart consulted the mil-setting table on his kneeboard, found the mil setting he wanted and dialed it into the gun sight. He adjusted the brightness of the reticle, trying to find a setting that would not overpower a hard-to-see target on a gray ocean on a hazy day. Finally he toggled his master armament switch on and selected gun.
He pushed the nose over, left the power up. He had the cruise ship on radar . . . if indeed it was the right ship. She was twenty-five miles away. He wished visibility were better.
Waiting was difficult as the jets plunged deeper into the atmosphere and the range marched down. Gerhart set his radar altimeter to sound a warning at 1,100 feet above the sea. At 1,100 feet, he would open fire, and hold the trigger down for no more than a second. At 900 feet he should be off the gun and pulling out, right or left, to avoid any ricochets off the water.
He was at six miles when he saw the ship embedded in the haze. There, one, two, three skiffs on the starboard side. He didn’t see the fourth, but he could only attack them one at a time, so he picked the closest and went for it.
Power back, down to 420, now 400 . . . speed bleeding off, angle steep because he was diving toward a point well ahead of his target, which was paralleling the ship, moving toward a point perhaps twenty degrees right of his six o’clock.
He raised the nose to establish a ten-degree dive angle, put the pipper short of the boat, slightly left . . . saw 1,500 feet on the radar altimeter, 1,500 on the pressure altimeter, airspeed down to 350. A touch fast for his taste, but okay.
He would be shooting in three seconds.
Captain Arch Penney felt the heavy thud of a nearby grenade blast. Idly, he wondered how many grenades the pirates had brought along. Probably enough to murder hundreds of people.
“Here come the jets.”
Penney risked a look. He saw only one, coming in fast, slanting down. It was coming from about ten degrees left of the bow and crossing over the extended centerline of the ship toward the starboard boats.
Even as he saw the jet, Penney realized it wasn’t going for the skiff nearest the ship, but one half a mile away.
He watched, mesmerized. The fighter came plunging down like a hawk.
The F/A-18 Hornet dipped low, perhaps a thousand feet, and began its pullout. The pirate boat disappeared in a cloud of sea spray as the audible buzz from the jet’s cannon reached him, seconds late.
“There’s a fighter over here, too,” someone called. “Hammered a boat.”
What would the skiff right by the ship do?
“Stick it to those balmy bastards,” another man yelled.
Mustafa al-Said was so intent on getting more RPGs into the Sultan’s bridge that he didn’t see the jet fighters at first. One of his men pointed . . . then he saw them. Saw one of the boats disappear under a hail of cannon shells. The jet was pulling out, climbing and turning for another pass.
Mustafa spun the wheel. The fighter pilot might not take the chance of shooting so close to the ship. Mustafa expertly brought his skiff to within ten feet of the speeding cruise ship. The sea between ship and boat was a river of foam.
The RPG man fired another grenade right into the bridge wing.
The explosion of the grenade smashed into the officers and sailors huddled on the deck of the bridge. The concussion momentarily stunned Arch Penney. He found himself sprawled on the deck. Blood. Everything was covered with a fine spray of blood. He looked around. Smoke . . . carnage . . . a severed arm lay nearby on the deck. Bodies all over. Harry Zopp was coming around, bleeding from the head. He met his gaze.
“Bloody hell,” said Arch Penney. He crawled to the engine controls and moved the handles to all stop. “Strike, Sea Wolf One Oh Five. The cruise ship seems to be slowing. There is a pirate skiff alongside.”
“Can you attack it?”
“Too close to the ship.”
But one boat wasn’t. Gerhart steadied up, checked his dive angle and pulled the pipper onto the boat. Closing . . . now! The radar altimeter deedled, he squeezed the trigger, the gun vibrated, then he was pulling.
He glanced back. Spray obscured the skiff. As it exited the cloud of water, he could see that the boat was losing way, that people were jumping into the sea.
The screws of the Sultan were no longer churning the ocean into foam. She was obviously decelerating. A pirate boat was alongside.
Dieter Gerhart turned back for a closer look.
“Gear, the bastards are climbing aboard.” That was Tom.
Gerhart got a glimpse of men going up the ropes hand over hand, as- sault rifles on slings on their backs.
They had lost. The pirates were aboard! Two more boats were closing from astern. By the time the fighters got into shooting position, those two boats would be too close to the ship.
There wasn’t a damn thing two fighter jocks could do about it. “Join on me, Tom. We’ll make a low pass, then go home.”
That is what they did. The two jets went over the Sultan just above the top of the radar mast at three hundred knots. Dieter Gerhart got a good look at two men climbing a rope up the ship’s side. He turned to the northeast, began climbing, and keyed his radio.
As he listened to Sea Wolf lead’s report, Admiral Toad Tarkington smote his thigh.
“Send a Flash message to Washington,” he ordered curtly. “Pirates just captured a cruise ship.”
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Coonts