In exchange for his freedom from a secret Moroccan prison, deep-water salvage diver Jonah Blackwell agrees to lead a covert search for a missing research team in the dangerous coastal waters of Somalia, an area plagued by pirates and a deadly red tide killing all marine life within its reach. But when his expedition threatens the ambitions of billionaire industrialist Charles Bettencourt, Jonah’s survival depends on hijacking a hostile submarine and assembling an unproven crew who must simultaneously investigate the source of a mysterious oceanic plague and face down Bettencourt’s commandos.
A thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in the world’s last frontier, THE WRECKING CREW will resonate with James Rollins and Clive Cussler fans alike.
About the Author
Though he loves covering the expeditions of others, Taylor Zajonc enjoys going on his own even more! This passion has translated into this blog, novels, non-fiction writing and speaking.
As a maritime historian,Explorers Clubmember, shipwreck expert and avid world traveler, Taylor Zajonc’s real-life adventures nearly exceed those of his fictional counterparts. His fascination with exploration began when he joined a Russian expedition to the deepest archaeological site on the planet, descending nearly three miles into the abyss of the Bermuda Triangle aboard a Soviet-era submersible.
Taylor’s debut novel,The Wrecking Crewis a thrilling adventure set in the world’s last frontier, a story of a deep-water salvage diver set free from a Moroccan prison and forced to lead a covert mission into pirate-infested Somali waters. When his expedition threatens to expose the true source of an oceanic plague, he must assemble an unproven crew of former enemies and fight for the fate of the entire region. This novel is currently under development withBlank Slate Presswith a preliminary release date of February 23, 2016.
When not writing or hunting long-lost shipwrecks, Taylor can be found at the dog park or training at his local CrossFit box. He loves hearing from people – so if you’d like to book a speaking engagement, ask a question or send a note, please do so firstname.lastname@example.org@TaylorZajonc.
Read an Excerpt
First Two Chapters:
The Dassault Falcon did not soar so much as slice through the sky, triple Pratt & Whitney jet engines rocketing a sleek windowless fuselage over endless miles of lawless Somali coastline. Inside, Dr. Fatima Nassiri’s eyes drifted across the panoramic view, a clever combination of powerful exterior cameras and curved video screens. The projected illusion was breathtaking, transforming the interior into an impossibly lifelike 360-degree view. If she let her busy mind drift away from the technological complexity for a moment, it almost felt as though she were floating among the clouds.
It was a great step up from her previous Somali expedition. Grant money was tight, so she’d crammed herself into an aging Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop, elbow-to-elbow with her graduate students as they conducted their fifteen-hour data collection mission in a sweltering, unpressurized cabin.
While outside the African sun beat down on the fuselage like a blacksmith’s hammer, Dr. Nassiri sunk deeper into her plush leather seat, enjoying the gentle air conditioning with a hint of lavender perfume. Funny what happens when a Bahraini billionaire loses his favorite fishing spot to red tidethe trickle of research money became a flood, only this time with the added perk of a private jet. She was determined not to allow the opportunity to slip through her fingersevery dollar counted, every dollar brought her inches closer to understanding the growing red tide infecting the Horn of Africa like a plague.
Even now, she could peer at the high-resolution display and watch the spreading plumes of algae swirl like finger-paint in the deep turquoise of the shallow coastal ocean. At sea level, the thick, maroon intrusion stank of death as poisons asphyxiated the lowest single-cell rungs of the food chain, permeating through the food web to fish and mammals. Sea life could swim and starve or stay and suffocate.
Dr. Nassiri sighed. She was too old to cry over dead fish and dying dolphins and starving African fisherman.
The young ponytailed graduate assistant to Dr. Nassiri’s left reminded her of herself in younger days. She was an environmentalist, a scientist, and a true believer in the power of good intentions. Dr. Nassiri would never admit it to anyone, but the student was her favorite, the type of girl she’d always secretly hoped her son would someday marry. The other, a heavyset young man sitting further up the cabin, was a top pick from her university’s oceanography program.
Security was the overriding concern so the scientists dropped transponders according to a specified grid pattern. The plane would swing wide on the way south, considerably circumventing the coast of Somalia. The pilots would only hug the coast on the return route and never exactly the same course twice. No sense in telegraphing predictable movements. Somalia was bad territory, red zone, no place for a forced landing. At an altitude of only two thousand feet, their presence was close enough to annoy the pirates, some of whom occasionally fired a haphazard hailstorm of small-caliber fire skyward or even the rare slow, arcing rocket-propelled grenade.
A flashing indicator on the closest screen interrupted her rambling, boredom-induced thoughts. She pressed the communication button on her gold-inlaid, wood burl armrest to reach the cockpit.
“We’re coming up on coordinate zero-zero-five-one,” she said. “Prepare for the drop.”
“Roger,” whispered the pilot over the silky intercom connection. “Go ahead.”
Dr. Nassiri motioned to one of her two graduate students. “Ready transponder zero-zero-five-one.”
The young man nodded and punched in the code to his computer console.
“Reaching coordinates in ten … nine … eight …” he counted. “Preparing to release … four … three … two … mark … release!”
Dr. Nassiri pressed the release button on her wall screen, allowing a wing-mounted transponder to drop into the airstream. It would be a few moments before the tumbling instrument impacted the ocean below. They were designed to record all data before reaching a modest crush depth of just a few hundred feet. The Falcon shuddered; the finicky aerodynamic trim of the craft disrupted by the drop. Soon enough, the transponder came alive as it sunk through the water, transmitting a host of high-speed oceanographic and chemical data.
“Holy shit,” exclaimed the female graduate student, pointing to the curved screen on her side of the plane. “These readings are off the charts. Do you think we dropped a dud?”
The doctor tipped her glasses and glanced at the live data stream. Heavy metals, exotic chemicals, radioactive isotopes … a veritable toxic soup of deadly man-made materials. Her mind flashed back to a rumor she’d heard years ago.
The very thought made her shiver. Mertvaya Rukacould this be the first evidence of the Dead Hand? The Dead Hand was a legend spoken only in hushed whispers among her fellow faculty, and even then most often followed by a shrug or dismissive wave. But whenever she read about a flock of seabirds plunging dead from the skies, three hundred porpoises beaching themselves on rocky shores as their organs dissolved or entire fishing stocks collapsing without warning, she’d wonder if a single tendril of the Dead Hand had escaped its coffin. And then there were these off-the-charts readings, data that seemed as if she’d dropped the transponder into the well of Hades.
Or it could be just a dud, an expensive transponder down the drain.
“Alright, let’s circle back around to the last position,” she said. The pilots obliged, tilting the aircraft into an elegant turn. The young man resumed his countdown as Dr. Nassiri prepared to release another transponder.
As her graduate student prepared the drop sequence, she stopped suddenlya strange black vessel materialized a thousand feet below the Falcon, clearly visible on the high-resolution video screen. It cut through the water like a surfaced shark, the prow underwater, but with a stubby central tower rising well above the waves. It looked like no fishing boat she’d ever seen. Two black-clad men stood in the tower. One of them lifted a long, tubular instrument towards the plane. Then a flash from below, a bright light trailing smoke. It circled, rapidly climbing towards the aircraft.
My godis that?
“Mimissile!” screamed Dr. Nassiri. “Missile!”
Even if the pilots could hear her, they could do nothing. First it was a thousand feet below, just a speck of light followed by a plume of white smoke, and thengood god, it was fastthe missile detonated against the port jet engine with a blast like the entire universe had collapsed inwards on itself in an instant. The pressure wave tore through the passenger compartment, blowing out her left eardrum before she even heard the sound. The wall screens went dark, leaving the length of the windowless fuselage dark save for electrical arcs and daylight streaming through the gaping holes in the aircraft’s thin skin. Wetness streamed from her nose as a tearing pain bit at her chest and wrist.
The plane heeled over like a bird with a shot-gunned wing and the young man to her right was sheet-white, open-mouthed and bleeding, holding onto one shredded arm with the other. She couldn’t hear his screaming over the wounded roar of the surviving engine.
Flamesshe could see flames through the perforated carbon fiber fuselage of the dying jet. The exploded turbine had turned the plane’s composite skin into a ragged mess. Heat and wind and sound flooded the cabin with unimaginable ferocity. Twenty million alarm bells went off through her mind as the jet tumbled through the air, all of them screaming going to die, going to die, going to die. Through the shrapnel holes she saw sky, water, sky, water as she tumbled too fast to even catch a glimpse of the horizon.
The jet hit an updraft, slamming her down into her plush leather seat with monstrous force, pinning her down. To her right, the young man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. Too much blood lost in just moments, his body simply shut down. The jet screamed, the whistle of wind through the fuselage blending in with the shrieking engine, a perfect maelstrom of mechanical distress. Then a wham, like getting hit with a blindside rugby tackle, like missing a step and taking that first big hit falling down the stairs, the jet bounced off the first of the whitecaps. Her entire chair tore loose, spitting sheared bolts and metal fragments as the aluminum mounts ripped free. Debris cartwheeled through the air, cracking Dr. Nassiri on the side of the head. Her vision swam gray.
The jet struck the water again, off-center, and toppled to a dead stop, slowly rolling over to total inversion, wrecked and flooding. Dr. Nassiri hung upside down, watching helplessly as a collapsing bulkhead fell onto her young female student, pinning the woman against the bench. Dr. Nassiri released her safety belt, tumbling helplessly through the air before splashing into the gathering flood of ice-cold seawater over the thick carpet. The freezing water was a gut shot, a snap back to technicolor reality. The aircraft was fillingrapidly.
She couldn’t tell if the body to her rightno, it wasn’t a body, it was her studentshe couldn’t tell if he was living or dead, but he wasn’t moving and there was blood and
A single image froze in her mind … exposed pink brain matter leaking from his crushed skullcap as angry, foaming seawater flowed over his motionless mouth and nose. Dr. Nassiri pushed herself to her knees, reaching with a shaking hand towards the collapsed instrumentation panel. The young woman hung upside-down in the leather seat, pinned down by the bulkhead. She whimpered as the rising water floated her long, sweat-soaked ponytail in a wet pile. Dr. Nassiri tried to push the debris off her, but it wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t even tremble.
“Help me,” moaned the young woman. “Please, help me, please, help me, please!”
It was then that Dr. Nassiri caught a glimpse of the jagged carbon fiber strut sticking not into but through her. She couldn’t bear to make eye contact; she could only see the terrible wound torn through her pupil’s chest. The girl probably couldn’t even feel it through the rush of endorphins and adrenaline.
Dr. Nassiri tried to speak and then the water was over the young woman’s face, her dying student bubbling ineffectually beneath. Her ears popped with the pressure of the rising water. This couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be the last few seconds of her life.
Water flooded the interior with renewed force, pushing Dr. Nassiri upwards into a rapidly shrinking air pocket. The plane was upside down, everything was wrong. Pushing with her legsand she treaded water nowshe could just reach the manual release lever of the emergency door. She yanked on it, once, twice, to no avail. Horror flooded over her, as the last remaining vestige of rational thought told her too much exterior pressure.
The plane would need to flood and equalize the pressure differential before she could release the door. Her tiny air bubble would disappearand then how long until the end?
She had no time to think, no time to consider any other options, she took one ragged, burning breath of jet fumes and smoke and thin air and ducked underwater as the last of the air bubbles flowed through a lattice of shattered carbon fiber and streamed to the surface. She fumbled blindly for the lever and
And then it was free, just like she’d done a dozen times before. The door swung open. Her clothes caught on jagged metal as she squirmed her way out of the tiny opening. Freedomkicking her legs, she pushed for the glistening surface, breaking into thick, smoky air. Sunlight streamed through her burning eyes amid a growing slick of flaming aviation fuel.
My lamb, my little lamb!
With three more kicks of her legs, she swam underneath and away from the field. She popped out of the water, gasping for breath. The stinging seawater cleared from her eyes just enough for her to slowly turn around, treading water. She saw no land, nothing but endless rolling waves and the burning fuel slick. No sign of the mysterious vessel that had sent the beautiful jet spiraling from the sky.
My little lamb, my beloved only son.
But then something in the distanceincoming boats, attracted by the smoke. Three of them, lost in the heat of the day as they sped towards her. Three low, fast fiberglass hulls, unpainted, filled with dark faces and bristling with weaponry.
Do not search for me, my son.
And then the pirates were upon her.
Jonah Blackwell suspended himself from the ceiling of the chain-link cell, his eyes shut against the red tones of the rising sun. His fingers and toes wrapped around the steel links, holding his too-thin form in the air as he slowly lowered and raised his body against the force of gravity, letting his muscles clench, then release, each contraction bringing him a few inches closer to the unbounded brilliance of the cloudless sky.
He’d do a thousand repetitions this week. He planned a thousand more next week, maybe a thousand and one the week after. Finishing his quota for the day, he allowed his calloused feet to drop to the dirt floor of his cell. Jonah crouched, his bare knees reaching far past the ragged cuffs of his western-style khaki shorts. At a lanky six feet two inches, the ceiling of his cell was too low for a proper pull-up. Nevermind thatwith the protein-poor diet served to the prisoners, he could maintain little but lean, stringy muscle.
Prison 14 scarcely stood out from the endless drab brown desert landscape of southern Morocco, just two dozen buildings behind concrete blast walls and concertina wire. A tiny outpost of misery marooned in a sea of desert, leaning guard towersheld silent sentry over a large courtyard ringed by rows of auxiliary tents and trailers. A ragged motor pool held a dozen decrepit pickups, each modified with military paint and human cages. The main gate opened to the desert and a disused perforated concrete pad complete with a skeletonized helicopter, long since stripped of any salvageable parts.
The prison had been hurriedly built to house a few dozen inconvenient reminders of an attempted coup. It now held nearly five hundred religious dissidents, misplaced progressive idealists, and disgraced political apparatchiks. The temporary outpost had long since become permanent, at least as permanent as anything in the Sahara. Past sandstorms scarred every building as the thick bulwarks slowly lost a long war of attrition with the desert wind and sand.
Prison 14 of the Moroccan Directorate of Territorial Surveillance did not officially exist, nor did the indistinguishable, ragged men housed in the endless rows of eight-by-eight chain-link cells. The designation of the prison, the numeral 14, was an intentional affront to logic, seemingly conjured by the desert itself as a cruel jokethere was no Prison 13 any more than there was a Prison 15.
No roads led in or out of the compound, the location only a string of geographical coordinates in an ocean of heat and sand. By helicopter it could be estimated as about eighty miles south of the Guetta Zemmur, itself a miniscule township in the Moroccan-administered territory of the Western Sahara. But by land it was a step off a single-lane dirt road and into the largest nothingness on earth.
The camp wasn’t built to punish, but to warehouse. By the time a shackled, defeated man reached its razor-wire walls, the secret police had long since demanded their last answer and torturer delivered his final electrical shock. Prisoners were left here, perhaps to live, perhaps to die, but always to be forgotten. Morocco’s Directorate of Territorial Surveillance ran the prison with a sort of backwater bureaucratic indifference, with no more humanity than whim demanded and a laxity borne by profound boredom. The real authority of Prison 14 came not from chain-link cages, steel shackles, dogs or rifles; it came from the eight million square miles of desolate, pitiless Saharan desert surrounding it, a body of shifting dunes and drought aged three million years, born before the faintest glimmer of humanity graced the face of the earth and destined to outlive it by time immeasurable.
Jonah ran a hand through his close-cropped blonde hair, releasing a halo of dust. Breakfast would be served soon, announced with no more pomp or circumstance than the click of magnetic cell locks. It was almost time for the weekly shower, practically the only form of timekeeping in Prison 14. Between his tanned skin, gaunt muscles, and strong features, Jonah could almost be mistaken for attractive. Not yet thirty, he’d become a man who filled silence with silence and wasted few movements.
Some of the political prisoners, Marxist student activists mostly, liked him, if for no other reason than his occasional patience for English tutoring. Jonah actually felt a bit of sympathy for the young prisoners of conscience. The journalists, bloggers and activists typically came from middle-class backgrounds, and were largely unprepared for the exacting machinations of state-sponsored terror. They thought if only they could reach the West, make them carethis of course, was the reason for the English lessonsthen something would be done. The grand injustice performed upon them would be rectified and the foundational tenets of a just moral universe restored.
Jonah did not believe this. He knew that some things just were, just as they’d always been. Perhaps the long arc of the universe bent towards justice, but it bent further towards indifference.
The electronic locks clicked, releasing the door to his cage. Shabby, barefoot men shuffled from their rows of cells, joining the stream of broken humanity towards the cafeteria tent in the center of the square. Jonah held back. It wouldn’t matter if he bolted to the front of the line or stood last. The fundamentalists ran the cafeteria, and they delighted in ladling him broth from the very top of the pot no matter where he stood in line. Besides, it was more difficult to put a knife in the back of the last man in line.
It did not matter to the fundamentalists that as far as most Americans were concerned, there was no hangman’s scaffold too high for a Blackwell. Son of an embezzler, son of a rapist or an addict or a murderer … all these lineages could be overcome by the eternal cycle of American reinvention. But there would never be redemption for the son of a missing American traitor.
A commotion rippled through the line as convicts moved or were shoved aside. A large, unkempt man pushed himself against the stream of prisoners. Jonah scowled, recognizing him as Umar, a low-level Rabat gangster whose weaponry sideline with the Islamic fundamentalists finally landed him in the ghost prison.
Umar was distinctly malodorous and dirty in a way that stood out even among the filthy detainees. He’d never cut his hair or beard since arriving and preferred to shower fully clothed. The gangster spotted Jonah and grinned, revealing a wide yellow smile speckled with gold and rot. Sensing something amiss, the last of the other inmates crowded and pushed their way free, only to join the circle forming around both men.
Umar was the sort of convict who managed to remain quite fat despite the limited diet of the prison. The guards realized early on he was a man without ideology, the sort of man they could utilize to strengthen their grasp within the walls of the prison. He never seemed susceptible to the despair that plagued even the most hardened of the religious fundamentalists; he was a rat that found comfort in cages as if he’d never known life without them, a rat that murdered other rats for sport.
Jonah attempted to slip past, but Umar sidestepped to block him, knocking one of the younger prisoners into a row of razor wire. The prisoner didn’t wince, didn’t shoutjust yanked himself off the hooks and, head down, shuffled away as quickly as he could. Umar smiled again, and said something in Darija, the local dialect of Moroccan Arabic. Despite his many months in prison, Jonah had a difficult time with the accentsomething about a man’s beard?
He’d only had trouble with Umar once before. Months earlier, the gangster had started trying to corner one of the political activists, a slight, former photographer from one of the wealthier families in the Moroccan city of Meknes. When Umar leered and smacked his thick lips to the activist in front of Jonah during a pinochle game, Jonah tossed the nine of hearts at Umar’s feet. Unknowing of the meaning of the gesture, a confused Umar bent to pick up the card. Before he could even look up, Jonah viciously kicked in the gangster’s face. His shinbone shattered Umar’s eye socket and knocked him unconscious for eight full minutes.
Umar spent the next two weeks in Prison 14’s rudimentary medical trailer nursing a swollen face and very specific notions of revenge. That was until Jonah snuck in and delivered him a hand-carved mortar and pestle, made from the rocks found in the prison yard. Jonah showed Umar how to grind out his pills into a thin white line. The primal memory of addiction took over, making the gangster’s next week the most fun he’d had since he discovered the joys of street heroin in the slums of Rabat. It wasn’t as if all was forgivenforgiveness does not exist in the Saharabut Umar now recognized Jonah as a man who knew his place in the prison ecosystem and decided to allow him to continue his existence as a low priority target.
Jonah watched as Umar reached up to stroke his beard again, saying the same phrase in Darija again. Louder, but still friendly, the gangster again tried to prompt Jonah. What was it? A joke about his face?
The American unconsciously reached up with his right hand to touch his own thick beard. With lightning speed, Umar threw his entire body towards Jonah, a feint concealing a hand darting towards Jonah’s abdomen. Jonah saw the glint of a steel blade for the fraction of a second before it was driven into his gut, just below his ribs.
Shit. Apparently Umar had reassessed his priorities.
Pain washed over Jonah, focusing him. Umar struck hard, but too hard, the fat gangster wobbled off balance, vulnerable. Jonah whipped his right fist across Umar’s face with a brutal right hook, catching the previously injured eye socket with full force. Then he saw it for the first timeUmar’s dilated pupils, darting eyes. The gangster was jacked out of his mind. He’d need to beat the man unconscious, maybe to death. Umar wasn’t going to back down, not this time, not even for a shattered eye socket, not for a broken bone or dislocated joint, not even a brain-rattling concussion.
So it was going to be a real fight, no posturing, not a lesson or a warning or boredom, but a blood-in-the-sand fight to the death.
Jonah winced as his abdominal muscled spasmed with pain. His mind raced, calculating his next move. Umar grabbed his shirt and Jonah clapped the big man’s ears. It would have ended the fight for any normal opponent, but Umar just laughed and threw him into the fence, the gangster’s inner ears already wet with blood. Jonah struggled to his feet and looked down. The knife had worked its way free but he didn’t have time to look for it, didn’t have time to turn the weapon against his massive foe.
Umar threw a wild punch and Jonah ducked, coming up underneath the gangster with a blow to his jaw, dislocating it. Fear entered Umar’s frantic eyeshe could not feel the pain, but some deep part of his lizard brain screamed at him through the fog of the drugs that something was very wrong. Screaming at him that he’d need to finish the fight.
The gangster straddled Jonah and drew himself up to a sitting position, aiming a meaty fist at Jonah’s face. Jonah raised his arms in a boxer’s defense, but the punch blew through, a crushing strike against the side of his head. A second blow from the other side violently knocked his head the other direction and his arms fell limp to the ground. He knew he was losing the fight, losing badly.
The blows didn’t stop, and Jonah’s rattled mind spit out garbled, conflicting instructions. Only one thought rose to the surface.
So this is it.
He didn’t feel anger or sadness. But he did feel a twinge of surprise, as if sitting down to a novel and finding it stopped halfway though, the rest of the pages blank. Two years was a good run, sometimes the music stops and you don’t have a chair. Umar’s ruined face stared back at him, jaw hanging to the side, nose shattered, eye drooping, as the gangster raised his fists back and prepared for the final blows.
A single gunshot rang out, and Umar jerked in surprise. He twitched for just a moment, then slowly tilted back, collapsing to the ground. Jonah crawled out from underneath his twitching form, dragging himself away without looking back. Adrenaline coursed through his veins like a raging river, as did angeranger at the brutality, the suddenness, the unfairness, and most of all, the sheer randomness of the attack.
The silhouette of a man holding a pistol stood between him and the sun. Armed prison guards flanked him, each with varying degrees of disinterest painted on their face.
“Bring him to my office,” said a voice in clipped Queen’s English. “Gently.”
Several guards grabbed onto Jonah’s arms and torso. He allowed them to lift him to his feet, and even placed his arms across their shoulders as they walked him through a door in the fence and towards the medical trailer. The other inmates knew better than to watch, but Jonah did catch the worried look of one of the activists. It was never a good thing to leave the grounds of the courtyard, not even for a visit to the infirmary.
With the sun no longer silhouetting his form, Jonah got his first good look at the man who’d saved him. He recognized him as Dr. Hassan Nassiri, a man who no more belonged in the blight that was Prison 14 than did an orchid in the Sahara.
Dr. Nassiri had arrived the prior evening to great commotion and speculation among prisoners and guards alike. Most hoped he’d come to replace the current director, a drunken army medic with a penchant for thick-needled penicillin shots and a strong reluctance to distribute even the most innocuous of narcotics, much to the impotent rage of Prison 14’s addict population. By stark contrast, Dr. Nassiri was a capable surgeon from a private practice in Tangiers. In the prime of his mid-thirties, with clear, olive skin and long, dark hair framing a sharp, well-proportioned face, he one of the finest examples of well-to-do Moroccan lineage, a product of generations of commingling between brilliant, wealthy men and beautiful, equally wealthy women. Though such families had long ago exited the aristocracy to the professional academic and medical class, everyone wondered what had brought such a man so low. What could possibly have reduced him to the purgatory of Prison 14? Incompetence? Heartbreak? Punishment?
The adrenaline from his fight wore off, and Jonah’s knees buckled. “Careful,” Dr. Nassiri said as the guards caught him. Following in the doctor’s footsteps, the guards half-carried, half-dragged Jonah past the medical tent toward a small mobile trailer parked at the far edge of the camp. Dr. Nassiri opened the door and the guards propelled Jonah inside.
Jonah stepped into a world of shapes and colors he never thought he’d see again. The trailer was richly appointed, with thick, comfortable carpeting, a single examination table and an imported Spanish-style writing desk. Dr. Nassiri took a seat in a comfortable green leather chair behind his desk, allowing the guards to unceremoniously deposit Jonah on the examination table.
“You may leave,” said Dr. Nassiri without looking up. The guards nodded and exited the trailer. Dr. Nassiri unlocked the lowest drawer on his desk and removed his pistol from his waist holster. Jonah caught his first look at the pistol that had taken the life of his attackeran Italian-manufactured Beretta 92FS with markings of the Moroccan internal security forces, a simple 9mm firearm ubiquitous to governments and police forces worldwide.
Dr. Nassiri clicked the safety on and placed it in the lowest drawer, locking it. He took his medical kit from behind the desk and walked up to Jonah. He snapped latex gloves on his hands. “May I examine your wound?” he asked.
Jonah looked down at his stab for the first time in a few minutes, and was surprised to see that the bleeding had already begun to subside. He nodded, giving permission. Dr. Nassiri leaned close, probing at the ugly puncture. Jonah smelled expensive cologne.
“A small blade, the wound does not appear too deep.” Dr. Nassiri took an antiseptic sponge from his bag and began to clean the area. “And as to your faceI imagine you’ve taken worse blows during your incarceration. Any dizziness? Fatigue? Nausea?”
Jonah shook his head. He felt he’d just gone through a washing machine with a set of bowling pins, but only the stab wound concerned him. Dr. Nassiri produced a syringe from his medical satchel and filled it. He smiled apologetically and stuck it into Jonah’s side. Immediately Jonah felt the numbness spread as the local anesthetic took hold around the wound.
“This will need stitching, my friend,” Dr. Nassiri said.
Jonah met the statement with silence.
“You do not wish the stitches?”
“Give me the needle and thread,” Jonah said. “I’d prefer to do it myself.”
“I assure you, I am quite artful with such minor procedures.”
Jonah weighed raising a fuss, but didn’t see the benefit. The last man to sew him up was the drunk medic who’d done the job with rough, shaking hands. Jonah had the scars to prove it.
“Lie back, Mr. Blackwell,” Dr. Nassiri said. “This will take but a moment.”
Dr. Nassiri possessed the practiced, smooth mannerisms of an experienced surgeon, and accomplished the stitching with no pinching or pulling. When finished, he slipped off his gloves, washed his hands and took two bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water from the fridge, giving one to Jonah.
“I’ve read your file, you know,” Dr. Nassiri said.
“Yeah? What does the DST have to say about me?”
“Mr. Blackwell. Thirty years of age. You come from … interesting … family stock. Your father, Donald Blackwell”
Jonah gritted his teeth. It wasn’t the first time his traitorous family history had been thrown in his face. When his original DST interrogators initially discovered his identity and family lineage, they’d treated it as a grand coup and confirmation of his inherent criminality. And thirty? He still thought he was twenty-nine. He must have missed his last birthday.
“Your father, Donald Blackwell,” continued the doctor. “CIA station chief with two decades of service. Highly decorated. That was, of course, until he vanished when you were … seventeen, I suppose? Eighteen?”
The doctor pronounced CIA like see – aye – eh, letting each syllable drip off his tongue like poison.
“He was a diplomat,” said Jonah, repeating his childhood cover story by pure instinct. The truth was more complicated. One day his father was there, the next he wasn’t. Over the next two years, concern became suspicion became accusation, each falling domino driving Jonah further from home.
“You were born in Beirut? Three days before the 1983 American Embassy bombing?”
“Does it matter?”
“Your mother is conspicuously absent from your file.”
“I was hatched.”
“You traveled a great deal in your youth.”
“Saw a lot of third-world shitholes growing up. Are you going somewhere with this?”
Dr. Nassiri pushed the file aside and looked directly at Jonah.
“I need you, Mr. Blackwell,” the doctor said.
Ah, the pitch. Here it comes, thought Jonah. An opportunity to collaborate for some small creature comfort or empty promise. Jonah crossed his arms, already refusing in his mind. It was bad enough to be alone in a room with one of them this long; every action would be suspect for months, assuming he’d survive the retaliation of Umar’s friends.
“I understand you are an accomplished marine diver,” continued Dr. Nassiri. “You studied for two years at the college of Marine Design at Glasgow University but did not complete the program. Dive instructor in Thailand, then volunteered for the British Embassy relief effort in recovering drowning victims after the tsunami. Saturation dive certification in Norway, several shipwreck and oil rig projects and from all appearances the beginnings of a lucrative career.”
Jonah uncrossed his arms. This he did not expect. Even remembering what it felt like to dive was like another stab wound, throwing him out of his prisoner’s hardened mindset.
“You came to specialize in saturation diving, including commercial salvage and well inspection and repair work for the oil and gas sector,” continued the doctor. “You were one of the first divers onsite at the Costa Concordia disasterunder a false name, of course. And this is not to even speak of your rumored treasure hunting. Spanish galleons, Roman caravels, Phoenician traders. It’s theorized that some of your activities and relationships ended in violence. There are gaps in the record, but I understand the DST was very curious as to whether you’d pursued a certain sunken Moroccan transport plane rumored to have carried a king’s ransom of cultural artifacts.”
Jonah frowned, signaling his unwillingness to rehash his arrest in Moroccan waters. He knew exactly what had pushed him from legitimate work and into the shadowy world of criminal treasure salvage. Survival, plain and simple. Once the news broke that his father wasn’t just a disappeared spy but a suspected traitor and double-agent, Jonah’s world shrank considerably. Sure, it looked bad from the outside, but the minute-by-minute decisions were clear from his perspective.
“Get to the fucking point,” said Jonah.
Dr. Nassiri smiled, ready to set the hook. “Six days ago, a jet aircraft was lost off the Horn of Africa, sinking a few miles from the coastline of Somalia. This plane carried a scientist and her two assistants, as well as a great deal of oceanographic research. I thought it lost forever, but our civil communications network has picked up a transponder signal emanating from the wreckage. I believe the aircraft has come to rest, in perhaps three hundred, three hundred fifty feet of water.”
“Which is it? Three hundred or three hundred fifty?” asked Jonah. “It makes a difference.”
“I do not know,” admitted Dr. Nassiri. “The transponder has been communicating, but we do not believe it will continue to do so for long before the batteries expire. I must begin a recovery of the data and the bodies of the personnel immediately.”
Jonah cocked his head, not bothering to ask the obvious question.
“You are pragmatic,” said Dr. Nassiri. “As am I. I feel that this service will outstrip your transgressions, and I am willing to have you released from custody. The proper bribes have already been set into motion. This is your chance at a new life, Mr. Blackwell.”
“What’s to prevent me from telling you to shove it the second we leave Moroccan soil?”
The doctor just smiled. “A new identity,” he finally said.
“While I cannot prevent you from breaking terms, I have come up with a method of incentivizing you to fulfill your obligation. Specifically, I understand you are not currently welcome in the United States, the nation of your citizenship.”
Jonah said nothing. He had no family there, no friends, not anymore. And to step foot in the United States as a Blackwell would only serve to reopen one of the more painful wounds in recent American political history, to say nothing of his probable arrest.
“Anyone can buy papers.”
“Who can offer a solution to facial recognition? Fingerprinting? My friend, I specialize in these areas of microsurgery!” Dr. Nassiri opened his arms wide, and began to talk excitedly. For the first time, Jonah felt as if he was seeing the real man behind the doctor’s façade, a man who prided himself in the expertise of medicine. “Why, facial recognition is the easiest. I will do this personally. You need not fool any persons anymore, merely the machines. For them, it is simply the matter of moving the location of specific data-points. I could move one ear up a millimeter. Bring in your nose just in the slightest; reshape the left eye socket to more closely match your right, the more attractive of the two. Just enough to nudge the data points and you are a new man as far as any software is concerned. The fingerprints are even easier… just a matter of the surgical incision and the creation of several sub-dermal fissures under the fingers. Two weeks later, your fingerprints will be unrecognizable. They will have no hallmarks of change, but be so different as to bear no association with your previous identity. Work history, identification papers, this is easy by comparison. Keep in mind that very little must be changed to make you undetectable as your former self. I’d recommend you stay away from major airports, untrustworthy past acquaintances and the borough of Manhattan, but otherwise you would have the chance to start again.”
“Would I need to return to Morocco for the procedure?”
“No. We could rent all necessary space and equipment in Thailand.”
Jonah nodded, considering the offer. Changing fingerprints and facial hallmarks seemed simpler than the gender reassignments Thailand had become renowned for. As if there were anything to considerhe’d been gone for too long already, only collaborators conversed with prison personnel in private.
“What would you need to undertake the recovery?” asked Dr. Nassiri, signaling that the pitch was over. No negotiation, Jonah could take itor die in prison.
“I’m familiar with the area. I worked on a sunken World War Two civilian transport some years back. A lot of ammunition and a stash of silver coins. Aircraft are manageable. I could probably do this one alone, and with a minimum amount of equipment. I would be alone, correct?”
“We would like to keep our footprint as small as possible.”
“I’d need a full set of trimix rebreather gear. Recovery liftbags. And a ship. You know much about the pirates in that area?”
“I assure you, we will be well-defended.”
“I’m going to take that as a no,” said Jonah. He sighed, collecting his thoughts. “Forget being well-defended. Be fast. They are devious, they are sophisticated, and they are organized. If they run into trouble, they don’t retreat, they call in reinforcements. I don’t care how well-defended you are, you’ll run out of ammo before they ever run out of pirates.”
Jonah could tell Dr. Nassiri was not a man used to being challenged or overruled. The handsome doctor paused just a little too long before graciously accepting the correction.
“See, you are already proving your value to me,” he said. “This is excellent.”
Both men sat back in their chairs for a moment to consider each other.
“I’ve been in prison a long time,” said Jonah. “I need to hear the catch.”
“I left out … details … about the scientists in the lost plane,” whispered Dr. Nassiri. “They are of no interest or consequence to my government. I have no sanction or backing from the Directorate or any other organization. The scientist is my mother. She was in Somalia studying a massive new red tide. She’s dedicated her life to her research. This project cost her her life. I must recover her body; I must recover her life’s work.”
“What if I’d rather shoot my way out of here?” asked Jonah. “I don’t think you’d be able to stop me if I wanted to take that pistol of yours for a last stand.”
“You’re my last hope,” said Dr. Nassiri. “I’m begging you. I’m at your mercy. I’ve tried to hire divers, mercenaries. No one will work in those waters for any price. And then it occurred to me to check prisoners, find a man who could be motivated. And then I found you, Mr. Blackwell. I swear to you I’ll do what I said. Believe me when I say I gave up everythingeverything to come to this prison to meet you.”
There was something different about the doctor now. No more clipped formality, no more deception, the Moroccan’s once-arrogant face radiating the one emotion Jonah could truly identify withpain.
“No backingno supportso what’s the big plan for getting me out of here?” asked Jonah.
Dr. Nassiri gingerly opened a desk drawer to reveal a single pre-prepared syringe. “I will give you a powerful sedative,” said the doctor. “I’ll declare you dead from the fight, a cerebral hemorrhage. I’ll drive you overland to Marrakesh in a body bag. I’ve already hired a ship in Casablanca.”
“Your ship won’t work.”
“But” protested the doctor.
“There’s only one ship in the world that’s fast enough,” said Jonah. “And she ain’t for charter.”
“I’m afraid I’m in no position to purchase a yacht.”
“That’s fine,” smiled Jonah. “Because we’re going to steal it.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This first book by Taylor Zajonc was a real thrill ride from beginning to end. Love that there is just enough technical detail to get you really involved in the moment, but not too much to bog it down. Cannot wait for your next book!