24: Rogue: New Excerpt

24: Rogue by Alex Mack is the 2nd book in the 24 series and picks back up more than a year after Jack Bauer's forced exile from the United States (available September 8, 2015).

The time is 8:00 PM.

Jack Bauer is a man without a country, a fugitive hunted by the most powerful nations in the world. He lives on the run, survives by his wits, and finds purpose in his exile by waging a one-man war against those who profit from the deaths and sufferings of others.

On a self-imposed crusade to destroy the criminal empire of international arms dealer Karl Rask, Jack has infiltrated the crew of one of Rask's freighters. But his mission is disrupted when the ship is hijacked by a band of suspiciously well-informed pirates off the coast of Somalia.

As Jack fights to free the ship, he discovers a deadly secret hidden in its hold: a prize the pirates were hired to steal, and that could be used to ignite a world war—unless Jack captures it first.

1

08:00 P.M. – 09:00 P.M.
The Gulf of Aden—11°01'23.8“ N, 44°57'04.4” E
Approximately 40 Miles North of Berbera, Somalia

The skiff’s prow cleaved through black waves. Salt water sprayed Osman Xasan Muhamad’s face as the narrow boat slammed into a trench between crests, kicking cold froth over its gunwales. At his back were two more skiffs loaded with armed and desperate men. Behind them hovered the waxing half disk of the moon, low and languid in its descent toward the western shore. Far ahead, lightning danced between the sea and the edge of a storm cloud.

He looked back toward Sadiq Khalif Fárah, his second-in-command, who manned the lead skiff’s outboard engine. “Faster! We’re going to miss them!”

“This is as fast as it goes.” Sadiq held the boat’s rudder in one hand and a digital compass in the other. He hollered back over the spluttering of the engine, “We should be close!”

As Osman peered into a darkness with no horizon, the fear of a missed deadline set his guts churning. “I don’t see them. They must be running dark.” Another spurt of water doused his face and left him spitting brine. “If we miss the rendezvous—”

“We won’t.”

Osman wondered if Sadiq would be so calm if he were the one who would have to answer for their failure should the freighter slip away. He tightened his grip on his AK-47 and strained to pierce the deepening gloom of night ahead of the speeding skiff.

Nothing but shadows pitching and rolling against other shadows.

All that Osman had, and all he hoped to have, depended on this mission. Raiding the freighter was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Beyond the outrageous ransom he and his men had been promised for delivering its most valuable cargo, they each stood to earn a fortune from selling the rest of the ship’s freight on the black market—not to mention the vast sums the ship itself would command from the right buyers. This score would free Osman from his life of piracy and fund his escape from Somalia—a journey for which he had longed his entire life.

Unfortunately, Sadiq appeared not to care about any of that. A sadist, he seemed born to live under the black flag. He needed money as badly as Osman and all the rest of their tribesmen, but that wasn’t what drove him. Osman knew from the predatory gleam in Sadiq’s eyes that he enjoyed being a pirate. An outlaw. A killer.

By tomorrow we’ll be done, Osman promised himself. After that, I will never have to see him again. He will be free to walk his path, and I will walk mine—far from here.

He squinted against a stinging spray over the prow, wiped his eyes, and struggled to see anything ahead except darkness. Then he found what he sought—a pale red dot of light. Staccato blinks in Morse code, the prearranged signal from their contact on the freighter.

“I see them! Shift heading, north-northeast.”

The skiff rolled and bobbed with nauseating swiftness as Sadiq adjusted its course toward the signal light. Osman fought back the urge to retch—he had always hated water travel—and watched the blinking crimson dot until he was sure he had seen the entire message.

“Their course is steady. Speed, ten knots. We’re clear for an aft approach.”

“Got it.” Sadiq plowed the skiff through another frothy crest of water, right on target. Osman relayed the information to the other skiffs with his own red signal light. Then he tucked the miniature beacon back into a deep pocket on the leg of his cargo pants and faced the rest of the men in his and Sadiq’s skiff. “As soon as we reach the main deck, you all know what to do?”

“I lead the search belowdecks,” said Ashkir.

Osman pointed at another man. “Dubad? Where do you go?”

“My men and I help you secure the pilothouse and radio room.”

“Good.” Osman trained his keen eyes on the group’s hothead, Feysal. “You?”

Sullen and brimming with half-muzzled violence, the youth muttered, “I hold the prisoners on the forecastle.”

Prisoners, Feysal. Not corpses. Remember that.” He looked at his last henchman, Yusuf. “You need to clear the engine room as fast as possible.”

Yusuf ejected the magazine of his AK-47, blew a speck of beach sand off it, then slapped it back into his rifle. “I know what to do.”

“Everyone remember the plan, and by dawn we’ll all be rich men.” It was not an empty promise. Osman had every reason to believe that this mission would prove as lucrative for his men as it would for him and Sadiq. That had been a key factor in his decision to accept such a dangerous operation against so infamous an adversary. He had come to pay the ransom on his freedom and take back control of his own life.

Another series of red flashes from the target. The way was ready, the approach clear. Despite the cover of night, Osman began to discern the shape of the freighter slicing across the gulf ahead of him and his men. He swallowed his fears, mustered a brave smile, and looked back at Sadiq. “It’s time. Take us in, and stay out of their wake.”

*   *   *

Unarmed, his back to the Barataria’s forecastle bulwark, Jack Bauer suppressed years of well-honed combat reflexes and let Callum Trent seize the collar of his shirt, when all he wanted to do was break the man’s neck and dump his limp body overboard.

“I can’t figure you out, Conway,” the gunrunner said. Trent knew Jack only by his alias, Tom Conway, a name Jack had dredged up from an old mission profile and adopted as his own.

It took all of Jack’s vast experience at deception to project an air of innocent alarm, and even more concentration to fake a Belfast accent. “What do you mean, Mr. Trent?”

“I mean, I don’t get what you’re doing here. You had a good thing going as a fixer for the IRA. So what’re you doing on this rust bucket, pushing lead from port to port?”

Jack knew enough about the real Conway’s troubles to pass them off as his own. “Times change. So do the people in charge. When my friends dropped out, I knew it was time to go.”

“The way I hear it, McPherson didn’t give you much choice.”

“As I said—it was time to go.”

It seemed Trent’s misgivings had been set to rest. He let go of Jack’s shirt and stroked his bushy horseshoe mustache. Then he shook his head. “Here’s what bothers me, Conway. You were Belfast’s bogeyman for years. Nobody agreed what you looked like. There were no photos of you, no arrest records, no fingerprints. You were a ghost. Now you’re swabbing decks for Karl Rask. Why come out of the shadows for scut work?”

“You really need me to say it? I lost everything when things went bad in Paris.”

Trent nodded. “Yes, the death of Seamus must have been quite a setback.”

“You can’t imagine.” Jack was gambling his life on the fact that only a handful of people in the entire world knew the real Tom Conway had been assassinated after an undercover agent took out one of the Irish Republican Army’s senior leaders, a merciless terrorist named Seamus O’Rourke. Both killings had been part of a clandestine mission Jack secretly set in motion several months earlier. As far as he could tell, no one yet realized he had been the source of the intelligence that led to O’Rourke’s and Conway’s respective downfalls. Fortunately, there were enough similarities between Conway’s story and Jack’s that he found it easy to steal.

“I can’t go home. Not for a while, at any rate. For now, I need to make new friends.”

“You want friends, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Jack sensed Trent would never respect anyone who didn’t come at him from a position of strength. He changed his rhetorical tactics to keep the man off balance. “You’re right. I never had much use for friends, either. What I need are new business relationships. New connections.”

“A fixer without connections isn’t much use to anyone.”

“Seamus wasn’t my only ally. I’m lying low—not down for the count.”

“Meaning what? You think you have something I want?”

“You? I couldn’t say. But your employer? Aye. Maybe I do.”

Trent’s eyes narrowed. “I doubt you have anything Mr. Rask needs.”

“Maybe that should be for him to decide.”

Derision put a smug smile on Trent’s face. “You don’t talk to Rask unless I say so. If you think you have something he wants, you have to convince me first.”

There it was—the opportunity for which Jack had wrangled his way aboard this massive ark of arms and ammunition. The chance to put himself within striking distance of the inner circle of Karl Rask, one of the world’s most elusive and notorious smugglers and dealers of arms great and small. The man could procure seemingly anything for anyone, anywhere. He had his hands in everything from small arms to field artillery, from fighter jets to cluster bombs.

“What if I told you I could get my hands on undocumented MIRV warheads?”

“Rask already has half a dozen waiting for buyers.”

Jack masked his frustration with a grin. “Or the new MI6 ciphers?”

“We get weekly updates from our own source at Vauxhall Cross.”

It was like trying to bluff someone holding four aces. “How about six vials of Russian smallpox virus, weaponized and ready for deployment?”

That cocked Trent’s eyebrow. “Interesting. Where, when, and how much?”

“Odessa, four weeks from now. Twenty million, American.”

“Tempting. Tell me again—why would we need you?”

“Introductions. And directions—Odessa’s a big city.”

Trent seemed almost amenable to the idea. Then his stare hardened. “I guess what really bothers me is that I’ve heard more than one person tell me Conway’s dead.” He shot an accusatory look at Jack. “Got his brains painted across the back of an elevator in Madrid.”

Jack chuckled, as if at an old joke. “Good. That means the money I spent spreading that rumor wasn’t wasted.” A faux-humble shrug. “As the saying goes, ‘The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’”

“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

“No. You just keep asking questions I can answer with the truth.”

Trent relaxed his guard—not by much, just enough that Jack sensed his interrogation was either over or at least on hold. The lean, thirtyish gunrunner looked out over the bulwark into the darkness ahead of the freighter, which plowed on a steady course toward its next port of call in Mumbai, India. “I don’t want you to think your experience and your connections aren’t valued or respected, Conway. But we have to be cautious.”

“I understand. Hell, that’s what led to Seamus’s undoing. He let himself get too close to what was happening on the ground. It got him a bullet in the head.”

“Precisely.” The ghost of a sly notion animated Trent’s weathered features. “Think you can talk your Odessa contact down to fifteen million for the smallpox?”

“Maybe. But they’ll need to know I have the cash on hand when I arrive.”

“That can be arranged, but I’ll have to go with you to the meeting.”

“Naturally.”

Trent took a pack of Gauloises from his pants pocket, shook one cigarette loose, tucked it into his mouth, and lit it with a stainless steel Zippo. After a long drag that flared the tip of the cancer stick cherry red, he extended the pack toward Jack, who refused with a casual wave. Shrugging, Trent tucked the blue box of pungent French lung darts back into his pocket. “I thought Gauloises were your favorites.”

“I quit after I went underground. Changed my habits to stay off the radar.”

“Very smart.” Trent put away his lighter—and came up with a loaded Beretta, which he pointed at Jack’s face. “Conway never smoked. He was born with asthma.” He backed up a few steps to keep his pistol out of Jack’s reach. “Now, then. Why don’t you put your hands on your head, kneel on the deck, and tell me who you really are?”

With his lie unraveled, Jack folded his hands atop his head and sank to his knees. “It’s a long story.”

Trent leaned against the forecastle bulwark and steadied his aim. “That’s all right. We have plenty of time to sort out the details. So let’s start with your name.”

What did he have left to lose? He dropped the accent. “My name is Jack Bauer.”

*   *   *

A mouthful of harsh chemical aftertaste told Simon Dedrick, the ship’s third mate, that he had smoked his cigarette down to the filter. He tapped its last crown of ash over the aft bulwark, then flicked the smoldering filter into the night, condemning it to oblivion in the sea.

Two quick, dim red flashes from astern. The pirates were close and ready to board.

He released the accommodation ladder on the Barataria’s aft starboard quarter. It fell with a shriek of rusted metal, loud and piercing enough to rouse the dead. Dedrick cursed under his breath and fought to ease the ladder toward the froth surging against the freighter’s waterline.

It had been hard enough getting out of the pilothouse and off the superstructure without drawing attention. Then he’d had to risk being spotted by anyone who might be on deck, in order to signal the pirates in the skiffs. He still couldn’t see them, but he had glimpsed their Morse code response, and whether he was ready or not, it was time to do what needed to be done.

Another red flash from below. The pirates were approaching the ladder.

Dedrick lifted the radio from his belt and pressed the talk button. “Conn, this is Dedrick! Man overboard, port side! Cut the engines! All stop!”

The second mate, Johan Schupp, answered without delay. “All stop!”

Alarms sounded throughout the freighter, on the main deck and through the labyrinth of compartments below. The great thrumming of its engines slowed and went quiet.

Another barked order into the radio: “Give me lights and a rescue party at the port bow.”

Members of the crew scrambled up from belowdecks and sprinted forward. From high atop the superstructure, the Barataria’s spotlights snapped on. Blinding beams sliced through the darkness and swept the water ahead of the ship and along its port side.

Dedrick leaned over the aft starboard bulwark and looked down the accommodation ladder. The men of the first skiff were already piling out and climbing toward him, assault rifles in hand. As the last man left their skiff, he set it adrift to make way for the next one.

Osman was the first to reach the main deck. He greeted Dedrick with a condescending light slap on his face. “Good boy. Just like we told you.”

The other pirates skulked past them, stooped like old men as they hurried in different directions—some forward, some toward the superstructure’s aft staircase. Dedrick struggled to keep his attention on Osman. “I did what you wanted. Now let my family go.”

“They go free when we control the ship.” He pointed a Glock semiautomatic pistol at Dedrick’s gut. “Take us up to the radio room.”

“Not until I know my family is safe.” It had been forty-eight hours since accomplices of Osman’s broke into Dedrick’s home in Pretoria, South Africa, and taken hostage his wife, Elaine, and his daughter, Karla. At the time, he’d known he had no leverage for bargaining. Now that the last group of pirates was climbing the ladder and their skiff was floating away, they were committed—which meant they needed his cooperation or else they were all going to die. “Let them go now, and show me proof, or you won’t get anywhere near the radio room.”

Osman’s eyes burned with resentment. He summoned one of his men with a whistle. “Sadiq. Show him his women.”

It surprised Dedrick to see the young Somali thug pull a large smartphone from inside his vest. He couldn’t imagine how impoverished Somalis could acquire such a device, much less get a service plan for it, but he put aside his questions when Elaine and Karla’s faces appeared on the screen. They looked haggard, with eyes red from weeping, but they were undeniably alive.

“Simon? Is that you?”

“It’s me, liefling. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right.”

Osman covered the screen with his palm. “Enough.”

“They walk. Now. Or we all die.”

An angry sigh. Osman took the smartphone from his man and grumbled into its microphone, “Bassar, we’re done with them. Let them go.”

He turned the screen toward Dedrick, who watched, unable to breathe, as a masked man cut Elaine and Karla’s bonds, then shooed them out their house’s back door. Osman switched off the phone and tucked it into his pocket. “My man can still chase them down. Take us to the radio room, and he won’t have to.”

“This way.”

Dedrick led Osman and six bedraggled pirates up the superstructure’s rear stairs, to the aft entrance of the command suite. Below them, a dozen of their compatriots split into teams of three and prowled forward on the starboard side, all but unnoticed by the Barataria’s crew, who were gathered on the port side searching for a nonexistent man overboard.

Standing at the keypad beside the aft door, a small inner voice of courage urged Dedrick to enter the alarm code, to make at least an attempt at stopping the pirates. Then he pictured the pirates putting a bullet in his head, and he clung to the irrational hope that he might live through this calamity if only he cooperated. He entered the access code and unlocked the door.

“Thank you, Mr. Dedrick.” Osman shouldered past him and pulled the door open. He flashed him a grin of stained, crooked teeth. “You’ve been most helpful.”

Behind his ear, Dedrick heard the hammer of a pistol being cocked, and he knew his hopes of survival had been in vain. The crack of a gunshot was the last thing he heard as his world went black and washed away, just another flick of ash in the sea.

*   *   *

“You’re making a mistake,” Jack said.

Callum Trent was certain he held every advantage. He had the Beretta. He was standing, and Jack Bauer was on his knees, hands clasped on top of his head. So why was Bauer acting as if he were still the one in charge?

“Give me one good reason not to put a bullet in your brain.”

“Because I’m not bluffing about being able to hook you up with Russian smallpox.”

Suspicion gnawed at Trent. “Why would you do that? You’re CTU.”

“Ex-CTU. If you know my name, you know I’m a wanted man.” He moved his hands from his head, then froze as Trent cocked the hammer on his pistol. “Living on the run takes money. I can’t hold a regular job with half the world hunting me. This is all I have left.”

Trent lined up his sights on the space between Bauer’s eyebrows. “A minute ago, you tried to pass yourself off as Tom Conway. You’re a bit short on credibility.”

“My credibility will be the money I can help you earn. I had to lie about my name. I can’t walk around telling people who I really am. I have too many bounties on my head.”

What he was saying was plausible, but Trent’s doubts ran too deep to be overcome so easily. “Maybe we should just put you up for auction, see who makes the highest bid.”

“Advertising you have me would just get you killed.”

Bauer was right, and Trent knew it. Neither the Russians nor the Americans took kindly to being extorted. Trying to pick their pockets for a bounty would only put Trent, his men, and the rest of Karl Rask’s operation in the crosshairs of competing special forces operators.

He lowered his weapon just enough to signal that he was reconsidering his options. “All right. What am I supposed to do with you?”

“Hire me.”

“I’ll give you credit for audacity if nothing else. And how will I—?”

Alarms whooped from loudspeakers mounted on the superstructure and the cargo derrick in the middle of the main deck. The steady rumbling of the engines ground to a sudden halt. Searchlights mounted above the pilothouse snapped on and swept down the port side of the ship as members of the crew scrambled up from belowdecks and hurried forward, toward Trent and Bauer. Careful not to let Bauer use the distraction against him, Trent stole furtive looks at the unfolding chaos. “What the hell is going on?”

The captain’s voice blared from one of the loudspeakers: “Man overboard, port side!”

Bauer looked as confused as Trent. “What’re they talking about? Who’s overboard?”

“Maybe they spotted someone adrift.”

“I don’t like it.” Bauer tried to stand, then dropped back to his knees as Trent refreshed his aim. “It feels off. Who the hell would be adrift here?”

“Stranger things have happened.” Trent was torn between curiosity about what was happening on the other side of the ship, and the nagging concern that Bauer might be right. “Let’s just stay put and let the crew do their job. If it turns out to be—”

A faint crack of gunfire from the aft end of the ship turned both their heads.

Trent took his aim off Bauer and dropped to a crouch. “Did you hear that?”

Bauer nodded. “I need to check something.” He motioned for Trent to follow him to the bulwark. Moving in tandem, they leaned over the side and looked aft. Bauer pointed toward the waterline. “Damn it! The ladder’s down. We’ve been boarded.”

Out of the shadows, Trent saw the dark shapes of men carrying assault weapons, a dozen of them, moving single file up the port side of the main deck. He and Bauer were outnumbered and outgunned. “Fall back,” he whispered. They darted to cover on the forecastle, behind the gearboxes for the ship’s anchors. Trent lifted his radio. “Shattuck! We’re being boarded! Send a team to protect the shipment and get the rest of our men out of their racks, now!”

“Roger,” replied his right-hand man. “On our way.”

Bauer peeked through a gap in the gear assembly. “They’ll be here any second. Do you have a backup piece?”

“You don’t really think I’m handing you a loaded weapon?”

Frustration sharpened Bauer’s whisper. “There’s no time to argue! When they come up that ladder, it’s gonna take both of us to hold them off.”

“Then I regret to inform you that, no, I don’t have a backup weapon.”

“Tell me you at least have a spare magazine.”

Trent bit down on his growing anger with Bauer. “I didn’t expect to need it.”

Bauer shook his head. “Great. Could this get any worse?”

Bursts of automatic gunfire ripped through the air. Fiery flashes from the muzzles of rifles lit up the shadows in the center of the main deck, revealing a second team of pirates, who had sneaked into position behind the ship’s crew on the port side.

Trent frowned. “The number of hostiles just doubled. I’d say that qualifies as worse.

Six pirates moved toward the forecastle ladder. Bauer eyed the deck between himself and ship’s bow; then he turned to Trent. “Do you trust me?”

“Not one bit.”

“Too bad. On the count of three, make them duck for cover.”

“Why? What are you going to do?”

“Everything I can to save your ass and your shipment.” He crouched and tensed. “One. Two. Three!”

Bauer leaped into motion. Trent sprang to his feet and emptied his Beretta at the squad of pirates. When his weapon clacked empty, Trent dropped back to cover behind the gear assembly. He caught a fleeting glimpse of Bauer’s feet as they disappeared over the starboard bow.

I’m sure as hell not taking that way out, Trent decided. He cast aside his empty pistol and reached for his phone. He keyed the speed-dial code for Rask, who answered on the second ring.

“What is it, Cal?”

“We’ve been boarded. Somalis, I think. Don’t know how many. We—”

A rifle’s warm muzzle nudged his temple. Callused hands plucked his phone from his grasp. A pirate whose facial scars looked like Hell’s highway map flung the phone overboard. He and five of his cohorts surrounded Trent.

The man spoke in thickly accented English. “On your knees. Hands on your head.”

Forced to adopt the stance he had imposed on Jack Bauer only minutes earlier, Trent couldn’t help but admire the cruel whimsy of life’s little ironies.

*   *   *

Several short bursts from Sadiq’s assault rifle reduced the Barataria’s radio room to sparking junk. White-hot phosphors spit from mangled banks of electronics, stinging Osman’s face as he marched past the smoking mess. He keyed in the access code he had seen Dedrick use on the outer door. The magnetic bolt lock on the door to the pilothouse released with a buzz. He pulled the door open and stood aside to let Sadiq and his men charge inside, rifles braced.

Sadiq blasted out a side window with a single burst. “Nobody move! On the deck!”

The ship’s officers did as they were told. Within seconds, the captain and his two senior officers were on their bellies, hands on their heads. The pirates searched their pockets and relieved the men of radios, keys, and cell phones. Sadiq took a .45-caliber Colt semiautomatic from the captain and tucked the bulky pistol under his belt.

Osman was bewildered by the consoles covered in gauges and levers. Dials and knobs were crowded together, and despite his facility with spoken English, he found it difficult to make sense of the controls on large ships such as the Barataria.

Sadiq seemed to sense Osman’s quiet dismay. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I just—” Gunfire from the main deck cut him off. He rushed forward and looked out the window. Half a dozen men armed with sophisticated assault weapons and body armor had emerged from belowdecks and were engaging the teams Osman had sent to secure the crew. He turned toward Sadiq and pointed aft, toward the door. “Make sure they don’t come in behind us! And dump them overboard when you’re done.”

Moving in fast strides, Sadiq snapped orders on his way out the door. “Khaled! Samir! Stay here with Osman! Everyone else, with me!” He led the other gunmen from the lead skiff out of the pilothouse, out onto the superstructure.

Alone with the ship’s senior officers and only two of his men, Osman decided not to take any chances. “Samir, bind them. Khaled, cover them while Samir ties their hands and feet.”

His men worked quickly, trussing the white officers as if they were goats primed for the fire. As soon as Osman was sure the situation was under control, he returned to the window and crouched to look over its edge, careful not to make himself a target for any stray bursts that might come toward the superstructure.

Muzzle flashes blazed in the darkness as Sadiq and the rest of the first team rained bullets down on the gunrunners. Blood spattered across the main deck as the mercenaries fell. The metal decks and bulkheads of the superstructure rang with bright ricochets from the mercenaries’ wild attempts to return fire at opponents they couldn’t see.

From his vantage point in the pilothouse, Osman watched the mercs group themselves into a tight huddle between a ventilator block and the heavy-lift crane. It wasn’t a bad position for a defensive stand, at least in the short term. It would protect them from getting snared in a cross fire, and it would bottleneck any incoming assaults.

But only if the people attacking them don’t know any better.

Osman fished the radio from his pocket and thumbed the talk switch. “Ahmed? It’s Osman. Do you hear me?”

The starboard-side team leader answered in a hoarse whisper. “What do you want?”

“Listen to me. The gunmen on the main deck. They took cover ahead of you, between the crane and the ventilator block. Do you still carry that stun grenade you found?”

“I understand. Hang on.”

A few seconds later, Osman watched Ahmed lean around a corner and lob the grenade toward the crane. Next came a blinding flash and a deep boom. In the seconds of smoky confusion that followed, Ahmed and his team charged from cover and descended on the cornered mercenaries, firing on full automatic until they were sure the last of the gunrunners was dead.

“Good job, Ahmed. Main deck looks secure. Round up the prisoners as planned.”

“Okay, Osman.”

He turned toward Samir and Khaled and pointed at the captain. “Get him up.” His men lifted the gaunt middle-aged white man off the deck and propped him up in front of Osman, who studied him with contempt. “What is your name?”

His accent was unmistakably German. “Captain Markus Rohde.”

Osman aimed his pistol at the head of one of the junior officers lying on the deck. “And who is in command of this ship, Mr. Rohde?”

The older man conceded Osman’s point without argument. “You are.”

“I am glad we understand each other.” He kept his pistol trained on Rohde as he barked at his men, “Take them down to the main deck and put them with the others!”

Samir and Khaled ushered the ship’s three officers out of the pilothouse at gunpoint and marched them down the outer stairs of the superstructure. Once they were gone, Osman looked out the windows and shuddered with anticipation of how rich he was going to be come daybreak.

By the time anyone knows this ship has been taken, I will be on the other side of the world, with a new name, a new life, and more money than I can ever spend.

*   *   *

Tightly wound bare copper wire bit into Trent’s wrists. He resisted the urge to struggle against his bonds; doing so only forced the wire deeper into his flesh, and his palms were already sticky with his own half-dried blood. He and the crew of the Barataria sat in a tight cluster atop the forecastle, their backs to the bulwark. They all had been searched and stripped of weapons, radios, and phones. The pirates kept the weapons; the rest they’d pitched into the sea.

None of Trent’s men, who had been separate from the ship’s crew, survived the initial attack. Two pairs of pirates busied themselves heaving corpses overboard. Trent took a small measure of satisfaction from the fact that a few of the bodies being dumped were part of the pirates’ contingent. At least my men didn’t go down without a fight.

A lone pirate with an AK-47 slung behind his back climbed the port-side stairs from the main deck and joined the rest of his men. He shouted in Arabic at one of his comrades, who yelled curt answers in reply. Trent’s Arabic was rusty, but he understood enough to realize the first man had asked whether the prisoners were secure, and the second man, the one with the dramatic facial scars, had assured him they were.

The one in command put himself in front of the ship’s captain. “The ship is drifting.”

Captain Rohde turned his weary gaze up at the pirate. “So?”

“Tell me which of your crew are qualified to drop the anchor.”

Rohde let slip a derisive snort. “Are you stupid? You can’t drop anchor here.”

The second, scarred pirate reached for a pistol tucked into his waistband. “Why not?”

“Because anchors are meant to be used in water less than a hundred meters deep. We’re in open ocean, you fools.” He looked at the two pirates, who didn’t seem to comprehend the simple words he was telling them. “There’s nearly fourteen hundred meters of water beneath us. Drop an anchor here, and you’ll just lose it to the sea.”

They received his bad news with pained grimaces and rolling eyes. The pirate in charge struggled to rein in his temper. “How do we stop the boat from drifting?”

“Put me and my crew back at our posts. We can run the engines dead slow and set the rudder to hold our position against the current.”

The leader refused with an adamant shake of his head. “No. You tell us how.”

“I can’t teach you twenty years of nautical experience in one chat at gunpoint.”

Scarface pulled the pirate leader aside. The two Somalis traded angry whispers that Trent strained to hear. The leader didn’t want to back down, but his second-in-command urged him to forget about the ship’s drift. Scarface tapped the face of his battered wristwatch, the universal sign for We’re on a schedule.

The leader frowned and breathed an angry sigh. He turned back toward Rohde. “These men around you. They are all of your crew, yes? Anyone missing?”

“No. All my men are accounted for.”

An accusatory finger pointed at Trent. “Any more of his men?”

Rohde tried to play dumb. “What do you mean?”

“Rask’s men.”

Scarface tilted his head at the last of the bodies going over the side. “The gunrunners.”

Sickening dread snaked through Trent’s gut. There was no reason mere pirates should know Mr. Rask’s name—and if they did, and knew who he was, they shouldn’t have been brash enough to risk killing his employees or stealing his property. What was going on?

Scarface waved his gun at Trent as he told the leader, “We should kill this one, Osman.”

“Not yet. We still need him.” Osman squatted in front of Trent, drew the .45 from his belt, and pointed it between Trent’s legs. “Now I ask you: Any more of your men aboard?”

“No. You just sent the last one down to Davy Jones’s locker.” Osman fixed his stare on Trent’s eyes, as if searching for a glimmer of untruth. Trent kept his poker face slack and steady.Technically, I told him the truth. Bauer’s not one of my men—he only pretended to be.

Apparently satisfied, Osman smirked and put away his pistol. “Tomorrow, I will be a rich man. Do what I tell you, and you will live to see my words come true. Cross me, and you will join the rest of your men.”

Osman stood and issued a fast string of orders in Arabic. Trent caught that Scarface’s name was Sadiq, and that he was to leave a team of six men to guard the prisoners and lead the rest of their team below to arm up from the ship’s inventory. As soon as Osman finished giving orders, he descended the port stairs and stalked aft with a troop of four men close behind him.

Captain Rohde leaned a few inches closer to Trent and muttered while trying not to move his lips, “What are we going to do now?”

“Stay still, and be quiet,” Trent whispered back, “until I tell you otherwise.”

There was no reason for Trent to think that Bauer was his friend, but the renegade American agent was now the only hope he and the Barataria’s crew had of living through the night. Because regardless of Osman’s promises, if these men conducted themselves the way most Somali pirates did, neither Trent nor the ship’s crew could expect to see another dawn.

*   *   *

Jack swam below the surface, following the waterline of the Barataria. Every few strokes, he came up just enough to exhale and draw another breath, then submerged again and kept swimming. The ship had come to a near total halt in the water, but the current was pushing it backwards at a fraction of a knot. That had added some time and distance to the hundred-meter swim back to the accommodation ladder, which had been left down by the pirates.

He climbed onto the ladder’s bottom platform, taking care to move as quietly as he could. There was a lot of commotion up on deck, more than enough noise to muffle the drizzling of water running off his clothes, but he knew not to take unnecessary risks. He squeezed the excess water from his hair, then took off his linen shirt and wrung it until it ceased to give water. Pressing his palms against his legs, he forced most of the moisture from his pants.

His first step up the ladder produced a squishing noise from his sneaker.

Damn it.

He knew of no way to wring out Nikes. Mumbling profanities, he kicked off his low-tops and set them adrift. He regretted the loss of foot protection, but he couldn’t risk the damage the waterlogged shoes would have done to his ability to move stealthily with speed. He peeled off his socks and cast them into the gulf, then started back up the ladder.

Barefoot, unarmed, and soaking wet, Jack padded up the steel steps. He dropped to a crouch as he neared the top. Pirates moved about the main deck in pairs or groups of three. Most of them were armed with AK-47 assault rifles, but several also carried semiautomatic pistols, and a few wore bandoliers festooned with grenades.

To his relief, they had posted no guards near the accommodation ladder. He guessed they hadn’t considered the possibility that anyone other than them might use it to reach the main deck. He watched the nearest pair of pirates until they turned away and moved forward. Then he slipped onto the main deck and darted into the shadows along the superstructure. He checked the starboard side hatch. It was unlocked. He nudged it open and listened.

From below came echoing footsteps, shouting voices, bursts of rifle fire.

The pirates must be rounding up the engine room crew, Jack realized. I can’t risk moving belowdecks until they bring the engineers topside.

He slipped through the door and eased it shut at his back. Taking the stairs with slow, exaggerated care, he climbed to Level 01, where his shared cabin was located. He paused at the door and checked through its window to make sure no one was lurking on the other side. Confident the corridor was clear, he turned the door’s latch by slow degrees, then opened it just wide enough to slip inside and guide it to a soft close behind him.

Now it was time to move quickly. He jogged to his cabin and went directly for his rack. He lifted the mattress and its platform to get at his clean clothes, making sure to pull the darkest items he could find—black jeans, a dark gray T-shirt, black socks and underwear. He tossed them on the bunk beneath his, then stripped off his wet clothes and hid them under his mattress. Can’t have one of the pirates finding my wet clothes and sounding an alarm.

In less than a minute, he was dressed in dry clothes. Recalling that his cabinmate, an Israeli engineer named Yiram, wore the same size shoes that he did, Jack checked under the man’s mattress platform and found a spare pair of rubber-soled black work boots. He sat down and put them on, knotting the laces as quickly as he could.

There were just a few more things Jack needed.

He went back to the space beneath his own mattress, shoved aside his dirty laundry, and uncovered what had been his best friend for the last nineteen months: a nine-millimeter SIG Sauer P229. He kept a full 13-round magazine in the weapon and three spares loaded and ready. He pulled back the slide, chambered a round, then tucked the SIG in its holster and secured it on his right hip. He took his shoulder duffel from atop the bed and loaded it with the spare magazines, four boxes of jacketed subsonic hollow-point rounds designed to inflict maximum damage on soft targets, and the pistol’s suppressor.

For good measure, he grabbed a leather fold packed with lock-picking tools—torsion wrenches, rakes, hooks, and assorted other tools of the trade—and tucked it into his back pocket. Last but not least, he retrieved a flat-black KA-BAR knife with a partially serrated edge and secured it, in its sheath, on his left hip.

That would be enough, he hoped, to get him belowdecks, where more serious armaments were stored in shipping containers bound for Karl Rask’s various international clients. He slung his duffel behind his back, drew his SIG, and slipped into the corridor. The pirates had rounded up the ship’s entire crew on the main deck.

Time to call in the cavalry. He crept upstairs toward the command level.

Jack suspected it was no accident the pirates had targeted this ship for hijacking, but he was determined to make sure it proved to be a mistake—one they wouldn’t live to regret.

 

2
09:00 P.M. – 10:00 P.M.

Patience had never been one of Sadiq’s virtues. Countless times he had heard Osman promise they would be rich men after they delivered the target to the client, and sold off the rest of the ship’s cargo to the black market. Sadiq didn’t want to wait that long. He wanted a fortune in his hand now, and he had a plan for how to get it.

His three most reliable men were behind him as he climbed back atop the forecastle to confront the last of the gunrunners. “You! What is your name?”

“None of your business.”

Sadiq slammed the butt of his rifle onto the man’s knee. He took great pleasure in hearing the arrogant Westerner howl in pain. “Your name.”

A growl through gritted teeth. “Go to hell.”

“You like to suffer?” Energized, Sadiq kicked the smug bastard in the gut, then in the ribs and the back. The toe of his boot slammed home, and he was sure he felt a few of the man’s smaller ribs crack.

He was about to shift his target to the man’s head when the ship’s captain blurted out, “Trent! His name is Trent! Now, stop, before you kill him!”

So, the captain is the weak link. Good to know.

It annoyed Sadiq to be interrupted, but he knew there would be time for more such amusements later. He kneeled beside the gunrunner. “Where is the money, Mr. Trent?”

Trent gasped for breath and winced when he found it. “What money?”

“You think I am stupid, Mr. Trent? You sell weapons. Lots of them.”

Disbelief scrunched Trent’s features. “I just deliver weapons. My boss sells them, and he gets paid by wire transfers. There’s no cash on board.”

“You are lying! Gun merchants always carry cash!”

“Maybe in your dust heap of a country. In the modern world, orders and payments are made online. Money isn’t my problem.”

“It will be if I do not get paid.”

Trent answered Sadiq’s threat with a glum chortle. “You want cash, tough guy? I’ve got sixty-three dollars in my wallet. And you can take my credit cards if you want, but I gotta warn you, they’re all maxed out.”

Sadiq was tired of playing games. “If you never see money, explain Beirut.” The immediate change of Trent’s expression, from glib to grave, told Sadiq he had scored a hit. “Three men from Hamas boarded this ship, each carrying a briefcase. Each left empty-handed. What did they bring you, Mr. Trent? Love letters?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Two weeks earlier. Izmir, Turkey. You welcomed a man from the Chechen rebellion. He, too, left your ship missing a briefcase he had carried aboard. Was he just forgetful?” Silence and a murderous stare from Trent. “Where is the money?”

“I sent it ashore at Suez.”

“You did not make port at Suez. And no cargo has left your ship since Port Fuad.”

A sneer. “If you know so much, why don’t you know where the money is?” He studied Sadiq, sized him up. “You had someone spy on the ship. Or someone did. Maybe not you. But whoever it is, they don’t have a man on board. Am I getting close, hotshot?”

“You do not ask questions. Tell me where the money is. Now.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

Sadiq summoned his men with a snap of his fingers. He pointed at Trent. “Stand him up.” As soon as his men had Trent on his feet, Sadiq punched the man in the groin. Trent doubled over. An upward jab of Sadiq’s knee struck Trent’s nose, releasing a spill of bright red blood. The other pirates pulled him upright just in time for Sadiq to backhand him. Sadiq drew his knife from its sheath and held its tip in front of Trent’s left eye. “Do not make me do this.”

“I’m not making you do anything. You’re digging your own grave all by yourself.”

Now Sadiq understood: Trent was a man who genuinely did not care for his own well being or survival. It had been either trained or beaten out of him. However it had been done, it had left him impervious to traditional means of persuasion. It became clear to Sadiq that if he wanted to find the gunrunners’ money, he would have to exploit a softer target.

“Put him down.”

His men pushed Trent back to the deck; then they followed Sadiq as he paced in front of the ship’s crew, taking each man’s measure with a steady eye. As he walked back the way he had come, he made his decision and pointed at the youngest-looking member of the crew, a Filipino who he guessed wasn’t much older than eighteen or nineteen. “Him. Get him up. Put him over there, away from the others.”

His men stood the youth by the starboard bulwark, near the anchor chain and hawsepipe. Sadiq waved his men to retreat behind him; then he stood facing the young man. “Your name?”

“Miguel. Miguel Blancaflor.”

“What is your job on the ship, Miguel?”

“Cargo hand.”

“And do you know where Mr. Trent keeps his money?”

“No.”

“Then what good are you?” Sadiq hefted his rifle and fired a burst that blew young Miguel’s head off, spattering the bulwark and the deck with blood, bone, and brain matter. The half-decapitated body slumped to the deck like a marionette severed from its strings.

Sadiq looked back at the rest of the crew. “Who is next?”

Captain Rohde lifted his hands. “Stop! Don’t hurt my crew!”

Fed up with delays and excuses, Sadiq advanced on Rohde, jammed the barrel of his AK-47 against the captain’s chest, and shouted, “Tell me where the money is!”

“Trent’s stateroom. In a hidden safe, behind the painting of the Yankee clipper.”

Now he was making progress. “Which cabin is his?”

“Level Three,” Rohde said. “Forward port corner. It’s the largest suite on the ship.”

Sadiq pulled his radio from a pocket on his cargo pants and thumbed the transmitter button. “Hamal, this is Sadiq. Are you still on Level Three?”

“Yes.”

“Go to the forward port stateroom. Is there a painting of a ship on the wall?”

“I will check.” Several seconds passed before Hamal added, “Yes.”

“Look behind it. Is there a safe?”

Another brief pause. “Yes.”

“Good.” Sadiq looked at Rohde. “What is the combination?”

“Only Mr. Trent knows.”

Trent smiled. “Kill all the deckhands you want. I’m not giving you the combination.”

“I won’t need it.” Sadiq walked away, heading aft.

From behind Sadiq, his trusted accomplice Samir asked, “What now?”

“First, we find this ship’s machine room and raid it for tools. Then, we rip that safe out of the wall and cut its damn door off.”

*   *   *

Footsteps thumped through the overhead, bringing Jack to a halt. He listened to the movements of the pirates. Running steps in the superstructure’s interior stairwell overlapped into a manic beat. Jack retreated into an empty crew compartment and put his back to the wall.

Voices followed the patter of running feet. Jack caught snippets of broken English and Arabic, in between bits of what he guessed was Somali. Listening carefully with both hands tight on the grip of his SIG, he did his best to parse the non-English phrases he overheard.

“Need tools,” a hoarse voice said. “Keep looking.”

Random items clattered against the floor of the compartment across the corridor. Jack braced himself for a showdown while he listened to the pirates tossing the crew’s living space. If they didn’t find what they were looking for there, their next stop was likely to be the cabin where he was hiding. This wasn’t where or when he had intended to face his enemy, but he knew from hard experience that a soldier had to deal with facts on the ground and fight the battle he was in, not the one he wanted to have. He drew a long, slow breath and concentrated on slowing his pulse. He became utterly still—ready to act, however and whenever necessary.

Static squalled from a radio in the corridor. A tinny voice broke through the noise. “We found the machine shop,” a nasal voice said in Arabic. “Just off the engine room.”

“Good work,” the hoarse-voiced man answered in Arabic. Then he barked some orders in Somali, and the hurried storm of running men raced back to the stairwell.

Jack kept the SIG raised and ready until the last footsteps faded away.

Since when do Somali pirates use military-grade radios?

He recalled various incidences of Somali piracy he had read about over the years. Most had seemed like low-tech, slapdash operations. If there was a signature feature to the majority of attacks by Somali pirates, it was amateurism. By contrast, these men were organized and well equipped. They had radios and solid firepower, and their tactics were decisive. Almost like they’ve been coached. He corrected himself: No, exactly as if they were coached.

Jack poked his head around the corner and scouted the corridor. It was clear. The pirates had used the starboard interior stairs, so he circled around to the port stairwell. He pressed his ear to the door. All sounded quiet on the other side. With care he turned the door’s handle and eased it open. Without the thrumming of the ship’s engines, the stairwell was so quiet that Jack discerned the subtle buzz of the wall-mounted emergency floodlights recharging. He guided the door to a silent close behind him, then climbed the stairs with practiced stealth.

He turned the corner at the switchback with his SIG leading the way. Seeing no one on the next landing, he kept climbing. He checked the next corner and continued upward, always assuming the next turn might be a trap. In less than a minute he reached the top of the stairs, and he closed in on the door to the command suite. It was locked, but he had hacked its access codes weeks earlier, as a matter of routine tactical preparation. He hoped the pirates hadn’t been savvy enough to change them.

As he entered the code, the keypad’s feedback tones sounded disconcertingly loud in the tomblike quiet of the stairwell. The door’s magnetic lock released with a final beep. Jack pulled the door open, but paused to listen for any signs of reaction from the suite beyond or the stairwell below. Both were quiet. He ducked through the door and shut it by hand to prevent its bolt from clacking as it passed over the lock plate.

To his left, at the end of a narrow passage, was the aft port door to the pilothouse. Directly ahead of him was the door to the radio room. Between them, halfway down the short corridor, was the door to the chart room.

Jack padded down the corridor and looked through the window of the pilothouse’s door. There were three pirates inside, each armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. In addition, each man carried a different kind of pistol, and one of them wore a bandolier of grenades. Storming the pilothouse might be possible, but the odds of success would be slim.

He edged back down the passage to the radio room. Sending an SOS was his top priority. Bringing in reinforcements from Rask’s organization would improve his odds against the pirates—and if Jack happened to be the one to summon that help and save Rask’s shipment, it would go a long way toward establishing his bona fides with Rask, and facilitating his infiltration of the arms dealer’s international empire of industrialized murder.

There was no window on the radio room’s door. Jack pressed his ear against it. Hearing no activity on the other side, he nudged the door open as softly as he could. He saw no movement through the sliver, so he opened the door wider. There was no one in the radio room, and the reason why was immediately clear: The ship’s communications suite had been destroyed.

Racks of sophisticated electronics had been reduced to splintered, bent metal, scorched plastic, and smoking circuits. An acrid stench of burnt metal filled the small compartment. Jack inspected each of the room’s many pieces of gear, and he found they all had been riddled with bullets. So much damage had been done, he couldn’t hope to cobble together enough working parts to make a new radio.

So much for calling in the cavalry.

He needed to keep moving and change his plan. Unless he could create enough of a ruckus to draw attention from other ships in the gulf, he would be on his own against the pirates.

It was fortunate, then, that he happened to be on a ship loaded from bow to stern with tons of the deadliest cargo known to man. Cargo he meant to put to good use.

He withdrew in careful steps from the radio room and returned to the port stairwell. As before, it was deathly quiet.

Jack braced his SIG with both hands and proceeded down the stairs, one flight and corner-check at a time. His next destination was Hold 3, the farthest-aft of the ship’s cargo areas. From there, he could assess how thoroughly the pirates had already infested the cargo decks, while at the same time make his way forward to the hostages being held on the forecastle.

Putting stronger firepower in his own hands might be helpful—but arming the ship’s hostage crew and unleashing them on the pirates would be far more effective.

*   *   *

“Faster! Just pull it out of the wall!” Sadiq stood at the back of the sprawling suite. Four of his men attacked the wall with a power saw, a hammer, a blowtorch, and a crowbar. Chunks of the bulkhead fell away or bent back as they dismantled the structural supports around the wall safe hidden inside Trent’s stateroom.

The safe had been installed by professionals. A new structure had been welded to the stateroom’s original starboard bulkhead to support and conceal the safe, since it would not have been possible to carve any usable space from the ship’s sardine-packed superstructure. Industrial-strength welds held the safe in place. Even now, with five of its six sides exposed, the box looked impregnable.

A high-pitched shriek of stressed metal became a mournful groan. The safe fell free of the wall, and the four pirates tasked with its retrieval scrambled out of its way as it slammed to floor, filling the stateroom with a resounding boom. It tumbled like a heavy-metal die for a couple of feet, and then it rolled to a stop, door-side up in front of Sadiq.

“What are you waiting for? Get it open!”

He stood back and gave his men room. The safe was strong enough to thwart ordinary thieves using the kinds of portable gear commonly employed in clandestine heists on land. Like most safes, however, it was just a steel box, and the kinds of tools that were carried aboard most working merchant marine ships were more than enough to reduce it to scrap in under an hour—especially when there was no need to fear capture or interference.

Sparks flew and smoke choked the stateroom. Sadiq moved to a porthole along the forward bulkhead and cracked it open to let in some fresh air. The roar of the acetylene torch and the whine of the saw made it impossible to concentrate on anything other than enduring the onslaught of piercing noise that surrounded him. Then, after several minutes that had felt like forever, the cacophony subsided. Samir called out, “It’s open, Sadiq!”

Sadiq hurried over to the safe and pushed past his men. The thick steel door had been melted and sliced off. A pool of molten metal had burned through the carpet, all the way down to the metal deck plate underneath. Taking care where he touched the floor, Sadiq kneeled in front of the open safe. Its interior was packed with riches.

He emptied the safe one greedy armful at a time and made a mental inventory of its contents as he went. There were stacks of American dollars and European euros, divided into thick bundles of large-denomination notes. Beneath them was a sheaf of negotiable bearer bonds, each one worth more than half a million dollars on the open market. The middle shelf of the safe was jammed with bricks of gold bullion and velvet pouches packed with uncut gemstones. It was more wealth than Sadiq had ever imagined laying hands on in his entire life.

But all he could see was what was missing. What was supposed to be there but wasn’t.

I thought it would be here. He wanted to revel in his new riches, but all he could think about was having to confront Osman’s criticism. Now we have to do this the hard way.

“Pack it up. We’ll divide it when we get back to land.” He headed for the door.

Samir stood next to the safe with a confused look on his face. “Where are you going?”

“I need to have a talk with Mr. Trent.”

*   *   *

Slipping past the pirates on the third level of the superstructure, right below the command suite, proved easier than Jack had expected, thanks to the unholy ruckus they were raising in Trent’s stateroom. The buzz, roar, and whine of power tools mingled with the chorus of shouting voices, which made it somewhat more difficult for him to figure out what they were saying, but he quickly determined they were focused on breaking into Trent’s hidden safe.

Jack continued down the stairs, to the Barataria’s lower decks. The engine room and shaft alley were situated beneath the superstructure, but with the vessel adrift, a surreal hush had fallen over the cavernous spaces. Jack had grown accustomed to the engines’ clamor masking his footfalls when he traversed the metal stairs. Now he had to concentrate to land on each step without making a sound. He kept his SIG steady and poised for action as he descended to the aft upper ’tween deck, which extended forward just past the superstructure.

As he expected, the pirates had left open the doors that led from the engine room to Hold 3’s upper ’tween deck. The aft and center holds of the Barataria each had been fitted with two peripheral ’tween decks for carrying smaller containers and shrink-wrapped cargo pallets. The forward hold was subdivided into two full ’tween decks jammed with palletized cargo, and a lower hold reserved for military-grade jet fuel and bulk storage of mortar rounds and RPGs. Jack had a good idea what he would find, having scouted the ship’s cargo days earlier to gauge the scope of Rask’s business. He just hoped the pirates hadn’t already taken the things he needed most.

Service lights cast limited pools of dim orange light and threw long shadows across the narrow ’tween decks, while the centers of the holds were crowded with steel shipping containers. The red, gray, orange, and blue boxes reached from the hold’s pitch-dark bottom deck almost to the cover plates on the main deck, with barely any clearance above them. Stealing forward, Jack moved with care while he let his eyes adjust to the gloom.

Many of the cargo pallets had already been cut open and pilfered by the pirates, just as he had feared. A few of the larger crates also had been forced open, including one that he knew had been loaded with fragmentation grenades. He glanced inside the crate as he passed it. Only three of the dozen boxes had been taken, but he was certain more pirates would soon come to help themselves to the rest. He used his knife to break the seal on a new box, then stuffed two grenades into his shoulder bag.

Knife sheathed, he advanced behind his SIG, his eyes penetrating the shadows, keen for any sign of movement. He slipped behind a pallet loaded with upright tanks of acetylene and found a massive wooden crate tucked into a corner, covered with a gray tarp. He pulled off the heavy sheet of oiled canvas and cast it aside, then holstered his SIG and pulled out his lock-picking tools. It took him only a few seconds to open the crate’s padlock. He lifted the lid and inspected the crate’s contents.

Boxes within boxes, all nestled in dry straw. Logos and model numbers printed on the boxes’ lids indicated they were packed with Heckler & Koch hardware. On the top were smaller boxes; some contained spare magazines. Others were boxes of accessories, such as cleaning kits, scopes, and straps. Jack pulled out the top layers of boxes to get a look at what was under them. The next layer was semiautomatic pistols. He began to fear this detour was a waste of time—until he saw the model numbers stenciled on the bottom stratum of boxes.

They were loaded with MP5SD-N submachine guns.

He moved the boxes of pistols out of the way, then lifted out one of the military-grade submachine guns. Its barrel was fitted with an integral stainless steel sound and flash suppressor. It was just what Jack needed—significant firepower coupled with a moderate degree of stealth. Best of all, it used the same 9 mm ammunition as his SIG.

He kneeled beside the crate, ejected the HK’s 30-round magazine, and loaded it with standard rounds. He slapped the full magazine into the weapon, then raided the accessory boxes for three spare 30-round magazines and an adjustable strap. In less than a minute he had the magazines stowed and the submachine gun slung across his back.

Now to get guns to the hostages.

Watertight doors through the transverse bulkheads were located on the starboard and port sides of the upper ’tween decks, but the only way to the lower ’tween deck and the main hold was via ladders built into the center of each compartment’s forward bulkhead. The ladders also led up to covered hatches on the main deck.

Jack could tell at a glance where the pirates had been belowdecks. They had left watertight doors open everywhere they went. Normal operations required all such hatches and weather doors to be closed at all times when the ship was at sea—a protocol of which the pirates seemed to be either oblivious or contemptuous. He resisted the reflexes honed during his military training and left the doors open as he stepped through the doorways, his HK braced against his shoulder, his eyes and ears alert to the faintest signs of danger.

There was movement beyond the next open hatchway.

Jack sidestepped behind a row of shrink-wrapped pallets and crouched for cover. He heard hushed voices and heavy footsteps moving closer to him. There were three men, all speaking a language Jack couldn’t translate, but whose cadences and sounds he recognized as Somali. He waited until they had passed his position and continued through the doorway behind him, to the aft hold’s upper ’tween deck, before he resumed his push toward the bow.

More pirates roamed the lower decks. He evaded them by treading lightly and keeping to the shadows. It helped that they weren’t engaged in an active search. They seemed to think they had already captured everyone who was on board, and now they were occupied with their inventory of the ship’s cargo, and with their fantasies of how they were going to spend their share of the wealth it was going to bring them. All the same, it slowed his progress, making a dash that should have taken minutes last for what felt like an eternity.

He passed through the last cargo hold doorway. Moving in a slight crouch with the HK firmly braced and balanced at eye level, he advanced to the forecastle bulkhead, an unbroken barrier that ran from the ship’s keel up to its main deck. It was designed to protect the rest of the ship from flooding in the event of a collision that breached the hull anywhere in its bow. There were numerous compartments on the other side, but the only way to reach them was through a topside hatch on the forecastle.

From his position, Jack had only one viable path up to the main deck: the ladder built into the bulkhead. He slung his HK behind his back to free his hands and climbed quickly, aware that the pirates raiding the holds could come back at any moment. In under twenty seconds he had disappeared into the darkness of the ladderway above the hold. Effectively blind, Jack proceeded by touch alone until he reached the hatch.

He knew the crew kept the gears and dogs of the ship’s hatches well oiled, so he had no fear the hatch cover would betray him with a shrill squeak when he pushed it open. His chief concern was that if the pirates had posted guards on the topside hatches, he was about to find himself in a very hairy situation.

He turned the wheel, released the lock on the hatch, and nudged it upward a fraction of an inch. Wind rushed in and spilled down the ladderway.

Jack peeked through the narrow opening. There was no one forward of the hatch, or on either side. He knew the hatch cover opened up and tilted aft. If someone was behind it, they would see it open before he saw them. He took that chance.

The hatch lifted open, its motion smooth and silent. As it tilted back, Jack looked over his shoulder. There was no one between him and the Hold 1 hatch covers. He climbed out, careful to stay crouched, and shut the hatch gently.

Though the ship was adrift, strong winds and the irregular slap of waves against the hull bled together into a curtain of gray noise ideal for covering the sound of his movements. Jack unslung his HK submachine gun and prowled forward, toward the forecastle. He paused beside the starboard stairs and looked over the edge at the forecastle’s topside.

The hostages sat crowded into the bow’s peak with their backs to the bulwarks. Most of them did not seem to have been bound, which was a good sign. Less encouraging was the trio of anxious, wild-eyed gunmen posted to guard them.

Won’t take much to set them off, Jack realized. I’ll need a diversion if I want to slip weapons to the crew.

Movement on the edge of his vision—two figures were approaching up the port side of the ship. Jack ducked out of sight beside the cargo hold cover.

Two pirates. The one in front had a scarred face. His cohort was slim to the point of being gaunt, and he had the dead eyes of a hardened killer. Both men were lean and rough hewn by adversity. They climbed the port ladder to the forecastle and stalked toward the hostages.

The angry duo descended on Trent. Scarface lifted the gunrunning middleman from the deck by his shirt collar and roared, “Give us what we came for!”

“What? It’s right where the captain said, behind the painting in—”

Crazy Eyes leaned in to add his measure of menace. “Not your safe! That we found!”

“Then what’re you on about? You’re rich men. You’ve made millions for a day’s work.”

Scarface pressed his pistol under Trent’s jaw. “You know what we want!”

Trent played it cool. “What? Machine guns? Land mines? Just name it.”

The next words from Crazy Eyes sent a chill down Jack’s spine.

“We want the missiles!”

Copyright © 2015 David Mack.

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DAVID MACK is the New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty-five novels, including the Star Trek Destiny and Cold Equations trilogies. He co-developed the acclaimed Star Trek Vanguard series and its sequel, Star Trek: Seekers. His writing credits span several media, including television (for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), film, short fiction, magazines, comic books, computer games, and live theater. He currently resides in New York City.

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