BLACK SITE (Chapter One)
Three small boats skipped over the water on an intercept course with the colossal freighter looming in the afternoon haze. Coal black and sinewy Somalis and cream-coffee Arabian Yemenis, sixteen men in all, leaned into the wind, watched the ship grow on the horizon, and fingered their Kalashnikov rifles.
None of the sixteen were new at this. They were all experienced pirates.
The choppy waves and the small profile of their long narrow skiffs hid their radar signature as they closed on the stern with brazen speed.
To a man they were all high, but not high on sedatives or the like, drugs that would muddle their senses or diminish their resolve. They were instead doped up on khat, the amphetamine-like leaf chewed like tobacco across Africa’s horn. They’d been chewing since late morning, and the full effect of the stimulant now gushed through their veins. The khat gave them extreme energy and near-superhuman confidence, but it also made them anxious, irritable, volatile.
With the loaded weapons in their hands and the promise of big money once they took control of the ship, the khat was a hazardous additive to a situation that hardly needed another unstable ingredient.
And one other dangerous ingredient, already well stirred in the pot, ensured that events soon to follow would not end well.
Their leader was out for revenge.
His name was Abdiwali. He was just twenty-two and already a veteran pirate of these waters. He spit khat-laced sputum into the foaming wake created by his wooden boat’s bow as it churned through the green sea, gripped his AK with sweaty fingers, screamed at the old man operating the outboard motor, told him his mother was a whore if he could not make the skiff go faster.
Abdiwali looked ahead at the looming freighter, imagined workers on the deck milling about. Helpless fools. Infidels, no doubt. Soon they would see the approaching speedboats, and they would know they were being hijacked. If these seamen were like all the others on ships captured by Abdiwali, they would point a sound weapon and blast a loud noise that was annoying and painful, but hardly a deterrent. They also might spray the pirates with water that could easily capsize a slower or bigger craft, but deck hoses would not threaten Abdiwali’s sleek and mobile skiffs. Finally, if the seamen on this ship were like all the others, when they realized their fate was unavoidable, they would slow the ship and allow the boarding. If they had time they would lock themselves in a safe room, a citadel, to remain protected from the pirates’ guns while communication was established with the freighter’s home office. Abdiwali and his men would demand ransom and then raid the officers’ stores of liquor and meat. With assurances that no harm would come to the crew, the citadel’s doors would open, and cigarettes would be passed around in a show of friendship. Tea would be poured and food would be passed about. The deckhands would return to their duties or retire to their bunks. In a few days, a few weeks if the home office felt the need to be obstinate, Abdiwali would have his money, and hands on the ship would be shaken. The pirates would return to their skiffs and race home to their mother ship, and the freighter, her men, and her cargo would continue on as if nothing had happened.
No. Not this time.
It had been a week since Abdiwali’s brother’s death. He’d led a similar hijacking, had made the mistake of targeting a Saudi tanker, and for this error had paid the ultimate price. The Saudis refused to negotiate. They sent armed helicopters from Jeddah, and the helicopters raked the deck of the tanker with machine guns, killing hijackers and hijacked alike, even gunning down the first officer of the vessel. Abdiwali’s brother was ripped in two and kicked into the sea for the sharks. One pirate was left alive, picked up by the helicopter and delivered to the coast, to tell the others that they could hit ships in the Gulf of Aden to their hearts’ content, as long as the ships were not Saudi flagged.
The freighter roiling the warm water before him was not Saudi owned, of this Abdiwali made certain, but his rage was real and his thirst for vengeance needed to be quenched, if only by proxy. With no real motivation other than impulse and wrath, young Abdiwali decided he would kill every last living thing on board.
* * *
Thirty-seven-year-old Kolt Raynor opened his eyes slowly, stared at the low ceiling above. The heat hung oppressive in his cabin. Sweat dangled in beads off his eyelashes. The stale taste of vomit in his mouth, mixed with the discount-store bourbon he’d been sipping nearly nonstop for the past six days, threatened to sicken him yet again. He rolled onto his side on his bunk, looked across the closet-sized room, out the portal at a blue sky.
Shit. Kolt had slept since breakfast. He looked to his watch.
He sat up, his head swirled, and he put his hands on his knees to steady himself. His baggy cotton warm-up pants were twisted up to his shins, his tank-top undershirt was smeared with greasy food, and his white socks were blackened at the soles. His uniform was pressed and crisp, but it was also hanging in the closet. He had not even taken it out of its plastic bag.
Kolt’s soft girth filled his clothing. His love handles seemed to be widening in the mirror these days. His beard and mustache had grown unkempt, and his hair hung past his collar line.
Not that he’d worn a collared shirt in some time.
He reached down to the floor, caught the rolling bottle that journeyed back and forth along with the movement of the ship. He found his plastic cup and poured three fingers of whiskey. As hot as it was in the cramped room, he served it up neat because he was too lazy to climb the stairs down to the galley on A Deck to get ice from the machine.
As he brought the drink to his lips the satellite phone wrapped in the sheets of his bunk chirped.
He found it on the third ring.
“Kolt? It’s Pete.”
“Colonel? What time is it in Virginia?”
Raynor wiped salty sweat from his brow with his forearm. “Not a social call, then?”
“Son, have you been drinking?”
Raynor looked down at the bottle that he still held in his right hand. It was half empty. He’d snuck a case of booze on board, and this was the last of it. “Of course not. I’m operational.”
“The captain says you’ve been puking off the side.”
“It’s a boat. People puke on boats, Pete.”
“The captain also says you’ve been insubordinate.”
“The captain is a jackass. We had a little run-in. No big deal.”
“He said you were drunk and unpleasant to him.”
“It’s not my job to be nice to the captain. It’s my job to … well, you know the deal. It’s basically my job to sit here and do nothing.”
“You are the security officer. You have many assigned duties, and you know what your duties are.”
Kolt finished the plastic cup of bourbon and tossed the cup on the floor, knowing it would roll back his way soon enough. “Yes, sir. I am allowed to run the LRAD if we’re attacked.” The Long Range Acoustic Device was a sonic weapon that blasted high-volume pulses and, in theory, could be used to fend away pirates.
But in real-world situations, the LRAD had been little more than an annoying noisemaker.
“That’s not all.”
“I turn the hoses on at night to slow down boarding attempts from the side. I check to make sure the antipirate fencing is in place. Sixty minutes’ work max, and work that a well-trained chimp could do. C’mon, Pete, this job is a joke.”
“You are the one making it a joke. You should be thankful for a paycheck. Six months ago you were selling camping gear in a mall in North Carolina. Now you’re a well-paid private security officer on a container ship crossing the Gulf of Aden. You did read the threat assessments I faxed you in Naples, didn’t you?”
Raynor stifled a hiccup with the back of his arm. Brought the phone back to his ear. “I know about the threat. There are pirates in the gulf, and they are assholes, but statistically speaking, there is less than a one-in-three-hundred chance we’ll get hit. Since NATO began patrolling the Gulf of Aden, attacks are down. And even if we do get hit, it’s not like I can do anything about it. I’m a damn stowaway. I don’t have any authority and I don’t have any weapons.”
“Our client’s rules of engagement are strict, I can acknowledge that, but—”
“Rules of engagement? Their rules of engagement are ‘Don’t engage.’ They won’t let me do anything but handle the LRAD if we get hit, or handle the ransom transfer if we get boarded. The captain could do that as well as I could.”
“Kolt, there is half a billion dollars’ worth of cargo on that ship, and there is a poorly kept secret in the maritime protection industry that you should know. Jorgensen Cargo Lines, like many others, hires us to staff every ship making the Gulf of Aden run with a security officer purely for the reduction in insurance premiums. They are saving money by just having you sit on your ass and work on your tan. If you get boarded you just tell the guy with the biggest towel on his head that Jorgensen will wire ransom to any bank he specifies. Your job is crucial, it is easy, and it only requires you staying sober. Can you do that for me, Kolt?”
“Yeah, Pete.” Kolt drank bourbon straight from the bottle now. He liked Pete Grauer. Appreciated the ex-Ranger colonel giving him security work when no one else would return his calls. Even if it was a piss-poor contract on a smelly ship cruising back and forth in the middle of nowhere.
Grauer continued. “Make a few more runs on the freighters, show me you can keep yourself together, and I’ll find some cushy static work for you somewhere closer to home.”
“How’s your back doing?”
“Aches a bit. Not too bad.”
“You’re damn lucky to be alive after what you went through. You do recognize that, don’t you?”
Kolt thought back to a moment in the not too distant past, and the flood of emotions that filled his booze-altered brain made him feel anything but lucky. Still, he replied, “Yes, sir.”
“You doing your exercises?”
Kolt gulped the bourbon again, leaned back in his bunk. “You bet.”
“How’s the crew treating you?”
“Other than the captain, they are fine. Norwegian officers, Filipino deckhands. My only incident so far was when one of the crew tried to turn in another for having a pistol on board. I talked to the culprit and he showed me the gun. It’s an old pot metal .22 revolver he keeps for rats.”
“Did you confiscate the weapon?”
“Hell no. This tin can is infested. I’d let him keep a belt-fed .50 cal in his bunk if he’d use it to assassinate rats.”
Pete chuckled. “Okay. We’ll let that one slide. Call me if you have any trouble.”
Raynor snorted. “Statistically speaking, there is a one-in-three-hundred chance you’ll hear from me.”
“One more thing.”
Kolt listened to the cracks and pops of the satellite connection for several seconds. Grauer was a man rarely at a loss for words. “I understand … everyone understands that what you’ve been through these past three years has been tough. I can’t imagine the guilt you deal with. But … no matter what happened, you need to turn the page and get past it. Those guys are gone, and your feeling sorry for yourself will not bring any of them back. You need to forgive yourself, and you need to pull those shoulders back, lift that chin up, and move forward. You have a life to live.”
“Yes, sir.” Raynor’s VA shrink had been saying much the same thing for most of three years.
Grauer’s tone changed a measure. From disappointed but empathetic father to taciturn commanding officer. “And I have a business to run. I can’t have you causing problems with the captain. That’s a lucrative contract.”
“I expect the same professionalism from you that I got each and every day you served under me.”
Raynor sat up straighter. He could not help it. Fifteen years in the military had created a Pavlovian response to such a commanding tone of voice. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Now, Major, put down the bottle. Clean yourself up. And no more fuckups.”
Kolt looked to the near-empty bottle in his hand. “Yes, sir.”
Grauer terminated the call.
Raynor dropped the phone and with it his shoulders. He rubbed the sting from his eyes, leaned forward on his bunk to stretch his aching back. He was hungry, filthy, sick from the booze, angry at himself for falling so far. He used to be someone, he knew it, and it sickened him to think about what he’d let himself become.
He’d been an Army Ranger, an officer, and then a member of Delta, the most elite fighting unit in the world.
But all that had ended three years ago.
Kolt shrugged, shook away the memories that haunted him, shook away just enough of the self-loathing to stand, and stepped into his sandals. He headed out the door and down to the galley to make himself a sandwich.
* * *
Five minutes later Kolt Raynor sat alone in the galley. He ate bread with cheese spread, wondered if he would vomit again. He felt queasy, like the room was moving, and he put his hands flat on the metal table to steady himself. His plate slid to the right, as did several other items in the room. He felt it now, unmistakable—it was not his nausea, and it was not his imagination. The ship was turning hard to port, still at full power. He knew they were far from land, it was broad daylight, and he therefore could not imagine why the captain was executing such a dramatic maneuver. There was no one around to explain why—all hands were working in other parts of the freighter. He grabbed a hunk of white bread and left the galley, climbed the stairs to the outside. He was one floor above the main deck, and he started for the stairs to go up to the control room. A middle-aged Filipino crewman in a tan jumpsuit and a red hard hat climbed a steep ladder to his level and ran past him, his thick rubber boots banging the cleated metal surface of the deck.
“What is it?” This man, Kolt knew, spoke only Tagalog, but he was able to convey a simple message.
Kolt stood there, said, “No shit?” through a lump of bread in his mouth.
BLACK SITE. Copyright 2012 by Dalton Fury