The attack was swift and completely unexpected.
Carl Hild hardly noticed the roll of the deck beneath his feet as he headed below, toward his cabin. He was still miserable. I never should have taken this gig.
The money wasn’t bad. The job itself, though…
Hild had been to just about every port in the world over the last twenty years. He’d sailed with all kinds of crews, from the good, to the bad, to the incompetent and depraved. None of them quite matched this nightmare.
Not that the crew itself was bad. Even the captain, drunk though he was, knew his business and generally treated his subordinates fairly. Even the route wasn’t bad.
No, it was the client.
The Tonka Canyon wasn’t the biggest oceangoing cargo ship out there, and her cargoes often only just about broke even. This time, though, the container at the forefront of the hold was supposed to pay for the whole voyage by itself, and that was leaving aside the other stuff they’d taken on to fill the rest of the hold.
It just didn’t feel worth it. The container had come with its own security detail and supervisor. And that was where the pain started.
The supervisor, who had introduced herself as simply Ms. Schrute, had never been to sea before, and it showed. Her intermittent seasickness, though, hadn’t humbled her, or even kept her out of the way. Instead, it had apparently strengthened her determination to be underfoot every minute of every day, obnoxiously reminding them of the importance of the cargo, questioning every single decision made by the captain or the officer of the watch, and generally making every second of the voyage a study in misery. She knew nothing about how to sail a cargo ship, and yet she had to be a part of every single action and decision.
They couldn’t get to Lisbon fast enough.
He got to his cabin, still morosely brooding over how many days they still had at sea, when something made him stop dead.
Hild might be miserable, but that hadn’t changed the fact that he was a professional. He’d been on too many ships, too many times across the ocean, not to quickly become attuned to every noise aboard the vessel. Sometimes realizing that something didn’t sound right might mean the difference between getting to port intact and becoming another statistic of ships lost at sea. Ocean voyages might not be as dangerous as they had been back in the early days, but the sea was still a dangerous bitch, and mechanical failures could happen to anyone.
This sound was different. It resonated through the hull, like someone had just taken a jackhammer to the bulkhead.
Tired as he was from his shift, it took Hild a moment to identify the sound. When he realized what he’d just heard, his blood ran cold.
He froze in the hatchway leading into the cabin he shared with Ignacio Ybarra. Another burst of gunfire rang through the hull.
He was a merchant sailor. He’d been in his share of bar fights, but that was hardly the same thing as gunfights. He didn’t know what to do. Even the piracy drills they’d run just after leaving port didn’t seem to fit the situation at the moment; whoever was shooting was already on board.
Another hammering report, sounding like it came from one deck up, decided him. He ducked into the cabin, swung the hatch shut, and dogged it. Then he scrambled into his bunk and crammed himself into the corner, watching the hatchway and hoping that the pirates took out Schrute and her goons and left the rest of the ship alone.
The short, wiry man’s dark eyes had looked on carnage and torture, had seen atrocities that would have made a serial killer blanch. The dead bodies lying on the deck, leaking blood out onto the steel, didn’t even merit a passing glance.
He walked calmly down the ladderwell into the hold, passing two of the men in storm gray fatigues, maritime plate carriers, and helmets, their faces covered, black Vector R4 rifles in their gloved hands, as he approached the lone cargo container tied down to the deck, separated from the rest of the ship’s cargo by a space of about ten feet. Six more of the men in gray stood there, weapons in hand, covering the two still-living maritime security men and the woman, all of them down on their knees. One of the security contractors was bleeding, dripping red fluid onto the deck in front of him, his head bent. The other was bruised and drooling a little. He was probably concussed.
The man whom even his gray-clad subordinates only knew as El Salvaje stepped in front of the woman and stood there for a moment, silently, until she finally looked up. He pointed to the container. “Open it.”
Her eyes were wide, but she was apparently still in some denial about the realities of the situation. “I don’t know who you are, but you’ve picked the absolute wrong ship to try to hijack. Do you have any idea who owns that container? You’re going to be hunted down, no matter where you try to hide.”
If El Salvaje had been a little more inclined to humor, he might have smiled. She hadn’t even tried the “if you go away now, no one will follow you” gambit. She’d just blustered.
He let his rifle hang on its sling, drew his Star M-43, and shot the bleeding contractor through the head.
The report rang through the hold, and the woman flinched violently as the man’s blood and brains spattered on the container behind them and he fell on his face. El Salvaje shifted the weapon toward the woman’s face. “Open it. Or we will kill you and open it anyway.”
The woman was shaking, now. She nodded, the movement spasmodic, and two of the gray-clad pirates hauled her to her feet. With trembling fingers, she began to put in the code on the container’s cipher lock. She was shaking so badly that it took three tries, especially since El Salvaje still had his pistol pointed, unmoving, at her head.
Finally, the cipher lock opened, and she stepped back. El Salvaje shot her in the head, a fine mist of blood spattering the container side as she crumpled to the deck. The other pirates had stepped back as soon as the lock had disengaged, knowing what was coming.
The last contractor started at the pistol’s report. “Hey, what the—” He was cut off by another gunshot, and fell on his face, motionless.
El Salvaje stayed where he was and motioned with the pistol toward the container doors. The pirate who had pushed the woman toward the doors hesitated, just for a moment, but when El Salvaje turned those cold, black eyes on him, he quickly stepped forward to pull the doors open.
The short, dark murderer joined the pirate and peered into the container, holstering his pistol and drawing a flashlight to shine it around the inside of the container. He scanned the contents for a moment before nodding in satisfaction. “Close it up.” He turned on his heel. “Get the rest of the crew up on the deck.”
Hild tried not to move or make a sound as someone rattled the hatch, then banged on it loudly. He did his utmost to stay absolutely still, a hole in the very atmosphere of the ship.
Whoever was out there hammered on the hatch again. He forced himself to hold his breath. It was ridiculous to think that anyone could hear his breathing through the steel hatch, but he tried it, anyway.
A muffled voice sounded outside. Then he heard a pop, then a hiss. A moment later, that hiss got louder, and then a point of brilliant light burst through the hatch, just below the first of the dogs.
He scrambled back, or he tried to. He was already up against the bulkhead. All he could do was watch as the torch burned through the hatch, until finally it was wrenched aside and tossed on the deck with a clang.
Two men in gray, their faces covered beneath their helmets, pointed rifles at him. “Get out. Now.”
For a fraction of a second, Hild considered trying to fight. That lasted about as long as it took for the thought to form. After hearing the gunfire echoing through the ship, he had no doubt that they’d shoot him to doll rags in a heartbeat. Putting his hands up, he wormed his way out of his hidey hole and went with them, trying not to burn himself on the still-smoking bits of metal where the hatch had been attached as one of them let his weapon hang and reached out to grab him roughly and haul him through.
Neither of the men in gray said a word as they shoved him roughly up onto the fantail, where he blinked in the sun as a rough, gloved hand shoved him from behind and made him stumble. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, at which point he saw that the rest of the crew, minus the security contractors and Ms. Schrute, were lined up at the rail, their hands on their heads, facing out to sea. Half a dozen men in gray fatigues, combat gear, and helmets, with wicked-looking military rifles in their hands, stood behind and to one side of the crew.
His captors shoved him hard again, and he staggered toward the rail. “Put your hands on your head.” He stumbled again as he tried to comply, and he was grabbed roughly by the back of the neck and propelled the rest of the way by main force, shoved between Rafe Munoz and Kit Harris. “Don’t move.”
He wanted to look to either side, to see if the others were okay, and if they might have some consolation, some reassurance that they were going to get through this. They’d be hostages, he was sure, but the crews usually made it through, right?
The sight of a speedboat coming from the Ro-Ro cargo ship just off the stern, loaded with men in coveralls, didn’t lift his spirits. That looked like a skeleton crew for a freighter, not more pirates. Why were they coming here?
He tried to look over his shoulder, but he was suddenly prodded by the hard jab of a rifle muzzle. “Eyes front!”
Hild strained his ears for anything that might tell him what was going to happen next. He suddenly found himself thinking about home. Even his ex-wife didn’t seem like such a bitch, right then. And to think, he’d been bitching and moaning about Schrute and her goons less than half an hour ago.
The first shot startled him. He snapped his head around, just in time to see the captain go over the fantail and fall limply toward the ocean.
Then the row of pirates behind them opened fire. He heard a thunderous chorus of hammering reports for just a split second before a fiery pain stabbed through his torso, and then he was falling.
He was dead before he hit the water.
“You think this is worth adding to the fleet?” The short, stumpy man spoke with a slight Afrikaner accent. He hadn’t bothered to cover his face; there was no need, with the crew having been disposed of.
El Salvaje didn’t know for sure why most of these men saw fit to do that, since the crews were all expendable, regardless. No one was going to be left to report on any of them, no matter the target.
“Do you have the men or equipment to offload that container?” El Salvaje studied the Afrikaner with hooded, dead eyes. The blond man looked away quickly.
Any other man might have turned away from the other pirate in disgust, but El Salvaje had not survived jobs with cartels, the Venezuelan-backed FARC, or any number of other such groups around the world by relying on his own formidable reputation for his safety. He watched the Afrikaner until the pirate turned away to find some other task that needed doing.
El Salvaje stood where he could keep his back to a bulkhead, and still see what needed to be watched, and thought. Taking this cargo would be a warning shot. He didn’t necessarily agree, but he wasn’t there to strategize for the fleet. That was Cain’s job. It was his fleet. El Salvaje’s job was to kill whoever Cain wanted killed, and collect his share of the loot, at least until it was time to disappear and move on again.
Of course, the warning implicit in making this particular package disappear was probably superfluous, given what had gone down over the last month. But again, that wasn’t his problem.
Behind the freighter, as the pirate crew brought it around toward the north, the sharks began to gather, ready to feast on the corpses still floating in the ship’s wake.
Marque and Reprisal comes out on Kindle and Paperback July 18.