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The Pearl of India freighter, over a thousand feet long and displacing thirteen thousand tons, had an official top speed of twelve knots. But with a following sea and clear weather, she was currently making better than twelve and a half through the Gulf of Aden. Even so, she would be no match for Erasto Khalfani’s small fleet of twenty-two-foot powerboats. Each carried a crew of nine and could make twenty-five knots with ease. Erasto lowered his binoculars and gave the order; he found that early-morning attacks were always the most successful.
Erasto Khalfani, a twenty-nine-year-old Somali ex-fisherman, was now plying the more lucrative trade of piracy. It was riskier than fishing, to be sure, but then the rewards were greater than he could realize in a lifetime of hauling nets. He had made himself and his men wealthy, and they trusted his leadership.
Hijacking a freighter under full steam on the open sea was no mean feat. The main deck of the Pearl of India rose thirty-five feet off the surface of the water. To board from a small craft like theirs, the pirates would literally have to scale the side of the moving vessel with grappling hooks and sheer skill. Not a task for the faint of heart. And yet this very band had been successful several times in commandeering vessels of similar size, and under even worse conditions. No, the Pearl of India was ripe for the picking; the prize was his.
As his small craft approached the freighter, Erasto surveyed the deck with his binoculars. There was the usual skeleton crew wandering about the deck, paying little attention to the waters below. Erasto knew that the continuous throb of the ship’s great engines would mask his outboard motors until they were quite close. By then it would be too late for the freighter to take any countermeasures.
In his heart Erasto was a peaceful man. Unlike the pirates of the Straits of Malacca, he had no interest in violence. He found that the show of force was generally more than sufficient to cow the crew of most commercial vessels. Certainly from time to time one found a would-be hero who had to be dealt with, but even then a well-placed blow from the butt of his AK-47 was more than sufficient to remind the gallant man that he was not made of steel.
Erasto took one last sweep of the deck with the glasses; they’d be throwing the boarding lines within the next few minutes. He paused when he came upon some vehicles sitting on the deck: a powerful-looking black pickup truck and what looked like some kind of ambulance. Odd for them to be in the open air rather than in the hold, but that was irrelevant. The ambulance would no doubt provide valuable medical supplies for his village, and the truck, well, that was the perfect ride for the leader of a pirate band. Erasto would ensure that both vehicles were part of his take when they negotiated with the owners for the release of the Pearl and her crew.
The boarding was accomplished seamlessly. Erasto, as usual, was proud of his men. Three remained on board each of the small craft, to pilot around the freighter and, if necessary, provide backup fire. Eighteen men, armed with assault rifles and small arms, scrambled up the side of the hulking vessel and were quickly on board.
In general, this was when panic ensued. The crew, realizing they’d been boarded, ran to fight, or hide, or beg for mercy. The first ten minutes were the most dangerous to pirate and crew alike. If a “hero” was going to emerge and start trouble, this was the time. But this crew did not behave this way, and years later Erasto would look back and realize that this was his first warning.
Instead the crew were completely relaxed as they quietly raised their hands and placed them on the backs of their heads. The looks on their faces betrayed neither fear nor anger, but almost a bemused aspect that one might have after hearing something only mildly amusing. Still, they were cooperative, and Erasto ordered his men to begin the process of evaluating the total take. This started with stripping the crew of their personal valuables, and moved on from there to the cargo.
“Gentlemen,” began Erasto, “there is an easy way and a hard way to do this. My men and I prefer the easy way. Think of us as simple entrepreneurs, and you will be our guests for the next several days. The wealthy owners of this vessel will parlay for your lives, and you will go home none the worse for wear. Resist, and things may not go so smoothly for you. My men will now come among you and relieve you of your wallets and other personal effects. Your cooperation is most appreciated.”
Erasto watched as his men went through what now was an almost routine process, asking the captives for their belongings, and if necessary patting them down to find the “forgotten” valuables.
He himself walked over to the black pickup. It was impossible not to admire the design. It was, very simply, one badass truck. Two of the captives stood together near the vehicles on deck; the pirates’ arrival had clearly disrupted their card game. Both looked like they could take care of themselves, and Erasto decided to take no chances. Placing his AK at chest level, he addressed the man of color first.
“Your valuables, sir, please surrender them.”
“Back pocket.” The man was incredibly relaxed given that an assault rifle was pointed a few inches from his heart.
“Which pocket?” Erasto continued.
“Left cheek.” The man sighed.
At this point the other man, Western European, or maybe even American, entered the conversation. “You and your ‘left cheek.’ Man, when are you going to learn that sitting on that thing is going to give you back problems later in life?”
“Given our jobs, I try not to think too much about ‘later in life.’ Besides, we don’t get much chance to sit down anyway.”
“I hear that. Still, I don’t know why you carry that thing around anyway. Not much use for a wallet in the places we end up.”
Erasto was not pleased with this at all. He understood fear: he used it to keep things peaceful. This casual banter was entirely out of place in the situation. Given the accents, he now knew both of these men were Americans. What were they doing here?
He addressed the white guy. “You do not carry a wallet? This is unfortunate. However, that ring on your left hand is no doubt of some value. You will give it to me.”
“This ring does not, I repeat, does not come off.”
“If need be, your finger certainly will come off. Must we go that route? So messy. Let us come back to it. Where are the keys to these vehicles?”
“You don’t want to mess with those,” said the black man. “Pretty on the outside, junk under the hood. That thing is dangerous. You get my meaning?”
“I think I will be the judge of that, thank you,” replied Erasto. He was impatient with this conversation now. He was certain he would have to pummel one of these two before it was over. He reached for the door of the pickup and began to open it. The door was wrenched from his hand and slammed shut again. Erasto took a step back, his weapon now up and ready to fire. “Whoever is in there, come out immediately or I will fire!”
“With pleasure,” responded a voice from within.
“Damn, man, I warned you. You’re in for it now, Captain Hook.” The two men had backed away from both Erasto and the truck.
Erasto Khalfani had seen much in his twenty-nine years, and he felt he was prepared for virtually all of life’s surprises. But his world of experiences could not have prepared him for what was occurring before his eyes at this moment.
The truck began to move. Not forward or reverse like a truck should, but rather every aspect of it was in motion. Parts folded and flipped in upon themselves, creating a completely new image in front of his eyes. Within seconds a towering figure loomed over Erasto. It rose up on two legs, one arm pointing directly at him, no more than a foot from his face. Erasto had stared into the barrel of various weapons during his life, and he knew that he was currently looking directly into the maw of the largest cannon he had ever seen. His AK-47 dropped harmlessly to his feet as he gawked in sheer terror at the being in front of him.
And then it spoke.
“I believe it is time for you to, how do you say? ‘Walk the plank.’?”
Erasto took two steps backward, stumbled, turned, and ran. His men had followed a similar course when they saw the beast rise from the decks, and several had preceded him into the water below. Erasto knew it would hurt a bit from that height, but anything to get away from this nightmare. He jumped, and was quickly picked up by his crew. In moments they were speeding away: fleeing for their lives.