Read an Excerpt
THE RAIU ARCHIPELAGO
SOUTH CHINA SEA
SEPTEMBER 15, 2000
The freighter had been christened the Kuan Yin,
after the Chinese goddess of mercy, but what doubt can
there be that its crew felt abandoned by their guardian
spirit at the end?
They had set out from the city of Kuching in Eastern
Malaysia at eight P.M., the cargo deck of their fifty-foot-long,
half-century-old steamship loaded with palm oil and
spices tagged for distribution in the wholesale markets of
Singapore. Despite intermittent rain, gusting winds, and
reduced visibility, the chop was moderate and the pilot
had maintained a steady speed of fifteen knots almost
from the time he got under way. He expected an uneventful
run followed by a night of drinking in a dockside
bar; even now in the wet season, the main sea lane was
short and direct, taking just less than four hours to cross
the strait and then swing up the coast to Sembawang
Wharf, on the north side of the island.
With little to do until they reached port, the four members
of the loading crew were playing cards in the vessel' s
boxy hold by nine o'clock, leaving the upper deck to the
pilot and boatswain. The former, of course, had no choice
but to remain at the helm, although any sympathy his
shipmates might have felt for him was blunted by their
resentment of his superior attitude, higher salary, and relatively
spacious bridge, with its soft leather chair and
posters of nude women tacked up among the charts.
On the other hand, the boatswain was extremely well
regarded by his fellows, and had been invited to join in
the gambling. A man named Chien Lo, he ordinarily
would have accepted with enthusiasm, but tonight had
chosen instead to remain on deck with the freight. Given
the bad weather conditions and his conscientious nature,
he was understandably concerned that the lashings might
come loose in the strong ocean winds.
Around ten o'clock the tropical downpour eased off a
little. It was in all likelihood only a brief lull, and Chien
resisted the urge to go below with the others. Trouble
waited with the greatest of patience, his wife was fond of
saying. Still, he decided it would be a good time to break
for a smoke.
As his dear, loving spouse had also told him--she was
quite full of advice--it was best to enjoy life's small
pleasures while one could.
Even as Chien Lo put his match to the tip of his cigarette,
two Zodiac inflatable watercraft had glided from the
rushes and mangrove roots rimming a tiny islet some
forty degrees east of the freighter's bow. Fitted with stabilizing
fin rails and powered by sound-baffled ninety-horsepower
outboards, they planed across the water at
close to fifty knots, fast enough to eat up the Kuan Yin's
lead in minutes, cutting parallel wakes that roiled out behind
them like the contrails of jet fighters. Soon the blot
of land from which they had launched was swallowed up
in darkness and distance.
There were twelve men in the pirate gang, its leader an
Iban tribesman of huge proportions, the rest natives of the
southern islands, their number divided evenly between the
fast-moving inflatables. The designated thrower in each
group wore leather gloves and had a coiled nylon rope
ladder snaplinked to his belt like a mountain climber. All
had concealed their features, some with plain canvas
sacks that had holes cut out for the eyes, nose, and mouth,
others with old rags and T-shirts they had simply tied over
the lower halves of their faces. They had identical kris
knife tattoos on the backs of their hands as symbols of
their criminal brotherhood. They wore swim vests over
their dingy, tattered clothes. They were equipped with assault
rifles and carried daggers in scabbards at their
waists. And they were ready to put their weapons to lethal
use without compunction, as the expressions of cold malignity
under their face masks might have shown.
While the seizure of a freighter was an act they had
committed scores of times, their present job was unusual
in that it would not involve theft of the ship's cargo, nor
robbing the crew of personal valuables that could be
fenced on the black market--except perhaps as fringe
benefits. Yes, the bars, whorehouses, and cockfight parlors
of Sibu would have to do without their patronage for
a while. Tonight they would be taking the ship into Singapore,
and once there would have other things to keep
As the silent-running Zodiacs approached the stern of
the Kuan Yin, they veered off in separate directions, the
headman's craft swinging toward its port side, the other
angling to starboard, both of them slowing to match the
larger vessel's speed.
For perhaps two minutes after pulling abreast of it, the
pirate boss stared measuringly at his objective, sweeping
his gaze over its rust-scabbed metal hull. He wore a denim
jacket, a scarf around his forehead to keep his long, rain-drenched
black hair from whipping into his eyes, and a
bandanna over his mouth and chin. Reaching into his
breast pocket for a small flask of tuak, he tugged the
bandanna down below his lips and swigged back some of
the potent alcoholic drink. He took a second deep pull
and swished it around his mouth, his face tilted skyward,
drizzle sprinkling his exposed, windburned cheeks. Then
he swallowed again, slipped his mask back in place,
jerked his head toward the short, wiry man with the rope
ladder on his belt. "Amir," he said, and sliced his hand
through the air, signaling him to proceed with the raid.
The thrower nodded, reached down between his knees,
and snapped open the lid of a stowage compartment between
the bottom of his seat and the Zodiac's aluminum
floorboard. From this compartment he extracted a second
rope, this one a twenty-foot single rope with a "bear-claw"
grappling hook at its end. He let out a measure of
slack, and then began laying up half the coils in his left
hand, taking the half attached to the metal hook into his
right. Finally he stood and moved to the side of the craft
that had edged up to the freighter, his feet planted wide
against the undulant rocking and swaying of the current.
Stepping down on the rope's bitter end, Amir turned
toward the cargo ship and heaved the grappling hook up
at it, letting the weight of the hook carry the line on, the
rest of the line paying out of his left hand.
The iron hook clamped onto its gunwale with a solid
An instant later the thrower heard a similar noise from
the opposite side of the freighter, and exchanged an anticipatory
look with his four companions. All of them
knew that sound meant the other raiding party had also
been successful in mooring their Zodiac to the Kuan Yin.
Chien was standing with his elbows on the starboard rail
and the cigarette dangling from his lips when he heard a
thumping sound off the quarter. Then, moments later, a
second thump from the same general area.
He frowned, thinking the peace and quiet had been too
perfect to last. The Kuan Yin was now twenty nautical
miles southeast of its destination, chugging along amid
the scattered outcroppings of rock, soil, and lush tropical
vegetation that were some of the Raiu chain's smallest
islands. Spread in clusters across a vast expanse of the
South China sea, they were mostly nameless and undeveloped,
and Chien always found the passage between
them to be a welcome interlude before reaching the congested
harbor of Singapore.
He stared out at the water and considered ignoring the
noise until he'd finished his cigarette, but could not stop
fretting. What if there were drums of unfastened cargo
rolling and crashing about the deck?
Chien shrugged and flicked his still-burning cigarette
stub into the water.
Responsibility had its burdens, he thought, and then
turned to walk aft and check things out, unaware of the
murderous presence about to slip aboard the vessel.
A moment after hooking on to the gunwale, Amir secured
his end of the rope to a mounting ring on the Zodiac's
floor. Smoothing his gloves over his fingers, he
turned to face the cargo vessel. Then he straddled the
line, grasped it firmly in both hands, and jumped off toward
the freighter, his legs spread, the line pressed against
his body for maximum tension.
His cleated boots braced against the freighter's hull, he
climbed with a kind of rhythmic shimmy, and was on
deck in less than a minute. Once aboard, he unfastened
the rope ladder from his belt, tightly fixed the upper part
of it to the handrail, and pitched the remainder of its
length over the side of the ship to the inflatable craft below.
The man who caught it quickly began his ascent, placing
his foot on the nylon sling ropes that served as spreaders
between the vertical mainlines. He knew the others
would follow one at a time to avoid putting too much
strain on the ladder.
Scrambling to the top of the ladder, he reached up toward
the first man's waiting hand so he could be helped
over the gunwale.
His upper body and elbows were already on the
freighter's deck when Chien Lo, coming aft to investigate
the mysterious thumps he had heard moments earlier, discovered
to his horror that his ship was under siege.
Crouched on deck, the first pirate heard the boatswain's
footsteps a split second before he actually pivoted on his
haunches to see him approaching. By then he'd decided
what to do. He didn't know how many other crewmen
would be on deck, but would not wait for them to be
alerted. The man had to be taken out right away.
Chien Lo had halted several yards toward the fore of
the deck, staring at the invaders in shock and dismay, his
legs turned to brittle shafts of ice. He had perceived the
intention of the man already on board even without being
able to see his face. The dark, narrow eyes peering
through slits in his hood told him everything he needed
to know. There was murder in them, pure and simple.
Chien Lo broke suddenly from his paralysis, spun
around, and ran for the vessel's bow, where he knew the
pilot would be manning the bridge. But the smallish pirate's
swiftness and agility were good for more than just
climbing. He sprang to his feet and streaked after Chien,
whipping his knife from its scabbard, moving almost silently
despite the thick-soled boots he had worn to provide
traction while boarding the freighter.
He overtook the boatswain in a flash, lunging at him,
grabbing him from behind, locking his arms around his
chest, the force of his tackle throwing him belly-down
onto the deck.
Chien produced a little bleat of pain and fear as a hand
twisted itself into his hair and yanked his head up and
back. Then the hard, cold edge of the pirate's knife met
the soft, warm flesh of his throat and sliced it open from
ear to ear.
Chien felt no real pain, only something that shook
through his nerves like raw voltage. Then the pirate released
him and his face hit the deck again and he died
with a long, spasmodic shudder, his nose, mouth, and
eyes in a pool of his own blood.
The pirate rose to his feet, dragged Chien's body to the
edge of the deck, and kicked it overboard. In the vastness
of the open sea it seemed there was hardly a splash as it
hit the water and was swallowed up.
When the pirate returned to where he'd tied the ladder
to the handrail, he found that the second pirate had managed
to haul himself aboard. The rest of their team and
five of the men in the other raiding party were also on
deck, waiting for the last pirate to complete his climb.
A moment later he was up and they were all racing
toward the forward part of the ship.
The pilot sank beneath the wheel in a lifeless heap, his
blood pattering from his maps and Playboy pin-ups like
falling rain. His killer had made fast work of him after
entering the bridge, stealing up from behind, and slicing
open his throat just as the first man aboard had done to
Chien Lo. Caught completely by surprise, he hadn't even
known what hit him, let alone gotten a chance to hail for
Now a second pirate came in, sidestepped the corpse,
and took the wheel. His eyes roaming over the instrument
panel in front of him, he nodded to the first man, who
clapped him on the back, sheathed his dripping blade, and
then rushed outside to give the others the good news.
They had taken full control of the vessel. Next they
would deal with its remaining crew.
"Get on you knees, hands behind you heads!" the Iban
shouted from the stairwell. Although every one of the
ship's hands looked like Malays, he'd barked his orders
through his bandanna in a serviceable if unpolished English.
The national language had many variations in dialect,
and he wanted to avoid confusion.
The crewmen gaped up at him from the card table,
faces stunned, playing cards spilling from their fingers in
a fluttery welter. Footsteps clattered behind the pirate
leader as the rest of his band followed him down the
metal risers from the deck.
"Do it now or I kill you all!" the Iban grunted, noting
the crew's frozen hesitation and motioning them away
from the table with the snout of his Beretta 70/90.
The four men complied, making no attempt at resistance,
getting up in such a rush they clumsily knocked
over several chairs.
They knelt in the middle of the cramped little hold and
looked at the raiders in silence.
The Iban noticed that one of the captives had slipped
off his wristwatch and was holding it out in his hand,
offering up the timepiece as if to get done with the affair
as quickly as possible. He knew what the man was thinking,
and almost pitied him. None of the recent anti-piracy
operations by Malaysia, Indonesia, the Phillippines, and
China had done anything to decrease the high incidence
of attacks in local waters. With thousands of jungled islands
and vast stretches of ocean to patrol, the naval authorities
could not hope to keep pace with their quarry,
let alone ferret out their hidden land bases. Regional shipping
companies were well aware of this, and simply figured
losses to theft and hijacking into the overall cost of
The pirate chief's eyes moved over the faces of the
sailors. While they looked tense and anxious in the cast
of an overhead light fixture, none of those faces seemed
especially fearful. And why should they be? The men
were seasoned hands. They would have been through hijacks
before, and expected to be robbed and sent off
safely in dinghies and lifeboats. That was how it usually
The poor, stupid bastards hadn't any idea what had
happened to their mates up above.
The Iban waved over one of the pirates who had come
rushing down the stairs at his heels. The man stepped up
to him and leaned in close for his orders.
"I don't want their papers messed up, Juara," the Iban
warned in a coarse whisper, this time speaking his native
tongue, Behasa Malayu. "That happens, all this is for
shit, you understand?"
Juara's affirmative grunt was muffled by the dirty white
towel shrouding his mouth and chin. A blockish, thick-necked
man with a shaved head and lot of surplus weight
around the middle, he gestured briskly to a couple of the
other hijackers, who moved toward the kneeling seamen
and ordered them to toss everything in their pockets onto
The ship's hands again did as they were told without
challenge. Juara covered them with his rifle while his two
companions went and gathered up their surrendered possessions,
depositing them in a small heap on the table.
When the hands had finished emptying their pockets, the
pirates frisked them down to make sure they hadn't withheld
Satisfied they'd gotten what they wanted, they nodded
Juara motioned the pair back to his side, then turned
to look at the Iban headman.
"Get it over with," the Iban said.
He tried to keep his voice hushed, but it was deep
enough to seem almost booming in the constricted silence
of the hold. A terrible understanding dawned on the crewmen's
features as their captors swung up their rifle barrels.
Now they finally know, the pirate thought. And they
One of the ship's hands opened his mouth to scream
and started to his feet, but then the raiders triggered their
weapons and he fell backwards, his clothes riddled with
bullet holes, most of his head blown away. Swept by the
hail of gunfire, the rest of the Kuan Yin's crew also went
down in a cloud of blood, bone, and tissue, their arms
and legs sprawling out wildly in their final throes.
The big Iban waited for the guns to stop their racket,
then stepped over to the card table and randomly lifted a
wallet from the pile of items that had been taken from
the crewmen. He was eager to finish this last bit of business
and return to the open deck; his ears rang from the
shooting, and the air down here stank of burnt primer,
blood, and the voided bowels of the dead.
He opened the wallet and found a driver's license in a
transparent plastic sleeve. There was more identification
in the other compartments. The slain crewman to whom
the wallet had belonged was named Sang Ye.
The Iban made a low, pleased sound in his throat. He
hoped the sailor had lived his life fully and spent his
money well. At any rate, his wallet and identity now belonged
to someone who would make good use of them.
There were big things in the works, very big, and the
Iban was eager to reach Singapore and get cracking.
He thought of the sheet of paper folded in his breast
pocket, thought of the instructions that were written on
it, thought of everything they were worth to him. Surely
more than he'd made in any dozen hijacks.
The American, Max Blackburn, didn't stand a chance.
No more than the crew of the ship had stood one. ...
Not the slightest chance in the world.