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By Mack Maloney, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Mack Maloney
All rights reserved.
Off the coast of Somalia
THE OH-6J ATTACK helicopter circled the mega-yacht twice before landing on its stern-mounted helipad.
The copter was armed to the teeth with a .50-caliber machine gun attached to each side of its fuselage, small winglets holding mounted rocket pods, and a 30mm cannon that jutted out of its nose. The copter was painted ghostly gray; a decal on the pilot's door identified it as Bad Dawg One.
Six vessels were anchored around the mega-yacht. Crews from four Kenyan patrol boats, a French destroyer and a Spanish minesweeper anxiously watched the copter land. A U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser, the USS Robert J. Messia, lurked nearby. A forest of antennas sticking out of its bridge was the only hint that the cruiser frequently engaged in intelligence operations.
An enormous black-and-green vessel ten miles away was barely visible in the haze. It was a supertanker of sorts, but it was not full of crude oil. Rather, it was an LNG carrier — as in liquefied natural gas. The ship was more than a thousand feet long, with five large geodesic dome shapes protruding from its deck. These domes contained 500,000 cubic feet of highly explosive LNG. The ship sat at anchor, no other vessels anywhere near it.
The rotors on the OH-6J finally stopped spinning and five men climbed out. They did not look like military types. Each wore his hair long and sported a stubbly, rock-star beard. One had earrings dangling from both lobes; another's open shirt revealed tattoos of ammunition belts crisscrossing his chest. The copter's pilot had a black patch over his left eye. One man walked with a prosthetic leg. A fifth man was missing his left hand.
Colonel Omir Zamal of the Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah, Saudi Arabia's version of the CIA, was waiting for them. A large man stuffed inside desert battle fatigues, he was surrounded by heavily armed guards. Indeed, there were armed men scattered all over the huge yacht's upper decks.
Zamal's aide was standing next to him. At first sight of the five men alighting from the helicopter, he whispered to his boss: "Are these the people we've all been waiting for? Or have they just escaped from a carnival?"
Zamal approached the men and offered only the briefest of introductions; there were no salutes, no handshakes.
"What's the situation?" the man with the eye patch asked him.
Zamal indicated the huge LNG ship in the distance. "The pirates who seized it are definitely Somalis," he said in heavily accented English. "They killed six members of the crew when they came aboard, and now they're threatening to blow up the ship if their demands are not met."
"And what are the demands?"
"Two hundred million dollars," Zamal replied starkly. "In cash."
The man with the earrings let out a whistle. "Now, that's some serious coin."
"How much is the ship worth?" the man with the patch asked, studying the LNG carrier through an electronic telescope held up to his good eye.
"More than a billion dollars," the Saudi officer said. "With the LNG on board? Maybe another hundred million."
"They picked the right ship to swipe," the man without a hand said.
"These pirates were well-prepared," Zamal told them. "They brought lots of food and water on board with them. They also brought ammunition, military radios, batteries, even a satellite dish so they're able to monitor media broadcasts and listen in on military communications, including NATO radio traffic."
"They're smart," the man with the tattoos said. "And that's scary."
"It gets worse," Zamal said. "They've rigged the ship with explosives — lots of them. So blowing it up is no idle threat. And they did not plant these explosives in any haphazard fashion. They put them in just the right places to cause the most damage in the shortest amount of time."
"How do you know that?" the one-eyed man asked.
"Because they posted a video of it," Zamal replied. "On YouTube."
The officer snapped his fingers and his aide pulled out a BlackBerry. He punched up a video that showed a collage of shadowy figures placing explosives below the LNG carrier's decks.
"They must have studied the structural stress points of this type of LNG tanker," Zamal explained. "Our experts tell us those charges are planted in such a way that if they blow up, they'll instantly ignite the liquefied gas. If that happens, that ship will light up like the sun and everything will be gone in about two seconds."
"How many crew are left alive on board?" the one-eyed man asked.
"Just six now," Zamal said. "It's a highly automated ship. Computers and GPS take care of all the work. A single person can drive the whole thing."
"And how many pirates are there?"
"Five in all," Zamal said.
"And any idea where they are on board?"
"Again — they're outsmarting us," Zamal replied. "They came aboard wearing clothes similar to the crew. Heavy work shirts, overalls, bandanas, hard hats. They have the real crewmembers doing their routine maintenance tasks, so when we look through our long-range binoculars, we can see people walking around on deck all the time. We just don't know who's bad and who's good."
The one-eyed man studied the ship further. "And how much gas is in that thing again?"
"A half-million cubic feet," Zamal replied.
The man with the earrings whistled again. "If it blows, it will make a pretty big hole in the ocean."
Zamal nodded grimly. "Now you understand why we're all anchored so far away."
* * *
ZAMAL BROUGHT THE five men below and led them on a long trek to the front of the huge pleasure craft. It was like walking through a luxury hotel. They passed by gigantic guest areas, salons, spas and dining areas. Giant bedrooms led into lavishly appointed private lounges and Jacuzzi spas. One cabin featured an infinity pool looking out onto the sea. Another held a movie theater, complete with candy counter and popcorn machine. Still another had six billiards tables, and another, a complete tailor's shop. One of the largest cabins was a children's playroom. It was filled with a variety of toys, many of which were strewn about on the floor. Dozens of boxes, unopened on the shelves, held more.
"The owner is a big movie fan," Zamal explained, playing the unofficial tour guide. "He loves billiards and dressing well. And, as he has many wives, he also has many, many children."
They finally reached their destination: the captain's master galley. This cabin had the look of an ultra-exclusive, modern restaurant, all tablecloths and candles and tasteful chandeliers. The mega-yacht's owner, Prince Saud el-Saud, was waiting here. He also owned the hijacked LNG carrier, which bore his name. A small man with a huge mustache and glasses, he sat at the head of an enormous dinner table, wearing the traditional Saudi thwarb and ghutra an iqal, looking worried.
Sitting to el-Saud's right was a younger man, a Westerner wearing sunglasses and a bad suit. To his left sat an older African man wearing rumpled doctor's scrubs. He looked like he hadn't slept in days.
The five visitors fell into seats at the other end of the table. The Prince studied them up and down. He knew a lot about them; most people in this part of the world did, especially those who made their living moving cargo on the high seas.
They were Team Whiskey. Former members of the elite Delta Force of the United States military, they'd been part of the small army of American special forces who'd pursued Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. The rumors said Team Whiskey actually cornered bin Laden near the mountain fortress of Tora Bora and had him in their gun sights, only to be ordered by someone at the highest level of the administration in Washington to let him go.
When bin Laden escaped, Whiskey raised such holy hell with their higher-ups, they were eventually bounced from the U.S. military altogether. Their leader — the man with the eye patch — created such a stink, he was imprisoned for seven years on trumped-up charges and then forbidden to ever set foot on U.S. soil again.
Prince el-Saud had obtained dossiers on each man. The team's leader, "Snake" Nolan, had lost his eye, and apparently part of his sanity, during that futile chase after bin Laden. "Crash" Stacks, he of the blond spiked hair and dangling earrings, was the team's marksman and could put a bullet up someone's nose from four miles away. "Gunner" Lapook, the tattooed giant of the group, was the weapons expert and door-kicker. When the team needed to do a forced entry, he always went in first. "Twitch" Kapula, a native Hawaiian, was the team's explosives man. Small and muscular, with dark skin and Polynesian features, he'd left his right leg, and part of his sanity, back in Tora Bora, too.
The fifth team member was "Batman" Bob Graves, the man missing his left hand. In a world where prosthetic limbs looked like real human appendages, Graves's false hand most closely resembled a Trautman Hook. An invention of the 1920s, it was two pieces of dull steel, each about four inches long. With its slightly bent tips, the hook's functions were limited to pinch and release and little more.
Team Whiskey had reunited six months before, and eventually reinvented themselves as an anti-piracy outfit. Banking on their special ops skills and far-reaching connections, they had delivered in a very short time results that were nothing short of fantastic. They'd fought two small wars against a powerful Indonesian pirate named Zeek Kurjan, finally killing him and destroying his large seafaring gang. They'd recovered a multimillion-dollar Indian Navy warship after Somali pirates had hijacked it near the Maldives. They'd saved a cruise liner full of Russian mafia bosses from a mass-poisoning attempt in the Aegean Sea, and they were believed to have been involved in the recovery of a unique multi-billion-dollar microchip buried on an uncharted island off East Africa.
Their success had brought them much wealth — and a reputation for being able to handle virtually any job. They were also undeniably American in looks and demeanor. Hard-bitten, hard-drinking, cynical, bitter — and very tough. Though they were all in their late 30s, each man looked old beyond his years.
The prince finally addressed them. "I admire your past accomplishments. You've done some brave and amazing things in the past few months. In fact, from what I've heard, someone should make a movie of you. But I must be clear: We are in an entirely different situation at the moment, one that is only matched by the unusual circumstances that led me to ask you here."
"And what are those exactly?" Nolan asked him.
"That's my LNG ship out there and I want it back," el-Saud told them. "But obviously, considering the cargo it's carrying, there can be no gunplay involved in its recovery. One bullet in the wrong place and the whole ship and everything around it will explode like an atomic bomb. So ..."
The prince nodded to his aides. They wheeled in a laundry cart carrying four enormous satchels. Each looked to weigh a couple hundred pounds at least.
"This is the ransom," he said. "Two hundred million dollars — all in five-hundred-dollar bills, just as the pirates demanded. All I want you to do is deliver this to them so I can get my ship returned to me."
The team was bewildered.
"You called us here just to deliver a ransom?" Nolan asked.
The prince nodded. "The pirates refuse to allow any military to be involved. No U.N. No Red Cross. I need someone I can trust to handle such a large amount of money. And besides ..."
He let his voice trail off.
"Besides what?" Nolan asked.
"Besides, one of the pirates' demands is that you make the ransom transfer."
Nolan was taken aback. "Us, specifically?"
"Yes, by name," el-Saud said. "They are insisting that you and your associates act as the middlemen, or there is no deal."
"This smells like a setup," Nolan said.
"That's because it is," the prince said bluntly. "Like everyone else around the Indian Ocean, these pirates know who you are and what you've done. We're listening in on their radio transmissions. Your names have been mentioned; your history has been discussed. I don't have to tell you how these pirates feel about you. You've killed their brothers, their cousins. So, they're probably going to kill you once the ransom is delivered, just to increase their reputation in the pirate underworld."
Nolan almost laughed. "Let me get this straight," he said. "These mooks say the only way they'll release the ship is if we deliver the ransom to them. And the reason they want us to do it is so they can kill us and increase their street cred. Yet, we won't be allowed to take any firearms with us to protect ourselves?"
Everyone at the other end of the table nodded. "That's it in a nutshell," el Saud said.
"And actually, gunplay will be impossible," Colonel Zamal interjected. "The pirates are being very aggressive about searching anyone coming aboard. They even brought metal detecting wands with them. It would be impossible to carry a firearm aboard that ship."
"How do you know all that?" Nolan asked him.
For the first time, Zamal indicated the man in the doctor's scrubs. "They allowed Dr. Bobol here aboard to treat one of the pirates injured in the takeover. He went over in the Spanish ship's helicopter. Tell them your experience, Doctor."
"I was frisked three times," Bobol said. "Then I was buzzed with wands another three times. They did everything short of molesting my private parts and doing a full cavity search. They, on the other hand, are heavily armed and seemed quite willing to shoot me had I stepped out of line, stray bullets be damned. They have the frisking process down to a science. They will detect any weapons on you immediately — and when they do, they will kill you instantly, and not later on. I'm sure of it."
A silence descended on the room. Nolan thought for a few moments, then asked: "Are there any Americans aboard the ship?"
He turned to the man in the bad suit and sunglasses. "Then why is the ONI here?"
The man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The team knew he was an agent from the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence — his cheap suit gave him away. ONI was basically the CIA of the seas, and because of Team Whiskey's ex-Delta, expatriate status, the little-known agency had been a thorn in their side since they'd started their maritime security business. This also explained the presence of the shadowy USS Messia nearby.
"We are here on an unofficial basis," the ONI man said finally. "Purely in an advisory capacity."
"Put that through the bullshit meter, please?" said Nolan.
The agent's face turned crimson. "We're here because the gas in that carrier came from Qatar; Qatar's export partner is ExxonMobil," he admitted. "And we want to protect their interests. As well as those of the Saudis and, of course, the prince himself. But, for the record, the ONI feels it's an impossible situation we have here and, again for the record, we recommend you don't go through with it."
Nolan just rolled his eyes and turned back to the prince. "You expect to pay us for this job, right?" he asked.
"Ten million dollars if your efforts are successful," the Prince replied somberly.
Nolan thought about this, then said: "What if the ransom gets delivered, but we still get popped? We're just, what? 'Collateral damage?' Is that it?"
Again, the prince just nodded. "It is a truly impossible mission," he said. "And I can understand every reason you would want to turn it down. It seems lose-lose no matter how one looks at it. But I felt I owed it to you to ask."
Nolan looked at the rest of the team. Each man tapped his own ear twice.
Finally Nolan asked, "Can my associates and I have a few minutes to talk?"
* * *
THE TEAM WALKED toward the front of the boat, emerging onto the bow.
Zamal followed and kept an eye on them from a respectful distance. The five Americans were soon locked in an intense discussion.
The Saudi intelligence officer couldn't imagine what they were talking about. They were being offered a job that could only result in their deaths. What was there to discuss?
Yet, ten minutes later, they were back in the captain's galley.
"Twelve million," Nolan told el Saud.
The prince was shocked. "Are you certain?" he asked. "The chances you'll survive are almost nil."
"Then make it fifteen," Nolan said. "You'll only have to pay us if we succeed, so what difference does it make?"
The Prince thought a moment, then asked: "Seriously?"
Nolan looked at his colleagues. Each man touched his chin.
"Seriously," Nolan replied. "We'll take the job."
Once again silence descended over the galley. The prince and the ONI man plainly were shocked the team was going ahead with it. Even Dr. Bobol looked incredulous.
Again, Zamal broke the tension. "What do you need from us then?" he asked Nolan.
The Team Whiskey leader thought a moment, then said: "First of all, Doctor, please draw us a diagram of exactly where the pirates stood when you went aboard and while you were being searched."
"And second?" Zamal asked.
Excerpted from Operation Caribe by Mack Maloney, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2011 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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