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The Atlantic Ocean
Jack Perry stared in amazement at the approaching cargo ship. He wondered not only how it had made the voyage thousands of miles from South Africa, but also how it stayed afloat in the first place.
With the afternoon sun behind him, Perry had a good view of the decrepit vessel. The peeling hull was painted in so many different hideous shades of green that it looked like a collage of rotting avocados. Gaps in the deck railing were patched together by rusty chains, and the five cranes were so dilapidated that they seemed capable of collapsing at any moment. The bridge windows on the dingy white superstructure set two-thirds of the way toward the stern were so caked with dust that Perry couldn't see the crew inside.
He shook his head in disgust at the ancient steamer called the Portland. Why his employers back in Virginia would trust such an important operation to this rickety ship was far above his pay grade. When he had the freight safely transferred over to his own container carrier, he'd breathe much easier.
The Mant’cora wasn't a fancy ship by any means, but she had to be fifty years newer than the Portland. The bridge where Perry was standing was set near the bow, and she was smaller. Designed as a containership for smaller ports, the Mant’cora had two recently overhauled cranes.
Perry turned to the captain and said in Spanish, "Make sure we lift the containers aboard using our cranes, not theirs."
"S’, se–or," the captain replied as he eyed the Portland with contempt. "I wouldn't trust those cranes to carry a feather pillow."
"How long will the transfer take?"
The captain looked at the bridge clock, which read 14:17. "Once you complete the transaction with the Portland's captain, it shouldn't take more than an hour to haul four containers over and secure them."
"And when will we arrive in Nicaragua?"
"There's no significant weather expected along the route to slow us down, so less than a week."
"Good. Then let's get this over with."
Perry left the bridge and climbed a rope ladder down to the lifeboat that had been lowered into the water. The Portland was now stationary two hundred yards off the starboard bow of the Mant’cora. Perry couldn't be sure, but he thought the creaky ship was listing slightly. He didn't relish getting on her, but he had to check the cargo to make sure they were getting what they'd ordered.
When the lifeboat reached the Portland, he climbed aboard and was greeted by a man in his fifties with thinning gray hair tied back in a ponytail and a gut that threatened to pop the buttons on his Hawaiian shirt. His khaki pants were stained with grease, oil coated his boots, and he hadn't shaved in days.
The man stuck out a hand and smiled. "Chester Knight is my name. I'm the master of this fine ship." His New England accent made him sound like he was straight off a Gloucester swordfish boat.
Perry nearly recoiled, not wanting to get his clean clothes anywhere near the man, but he shook it anyway. The man's grip was surprisingly strong.
"Jack Perry. Can I see the cargo?"
"You don't waste time on chitchat, do you?" Knight asked with a laugh. "Come on, then."
He led Perry to four shipping containers lined up on the Portland's deck. Knight nodded to a crewman, who opened the first container. It was full of crates marked stellenbosch precision flanges.
"It's all here just like you ordered," Knight said, and handed Perry a crowbar. "See for yourself."
"I will," Perry replied. He climbed up and pried the top off one of the crates.
Inside, carefully packed in Styrofoam, were a dozen South African-made Vektor R5 assault rifles. He checked another crate and confirmed that it also held rifles.
He climbed down and had them open the next container. This one held Denel Y3 AGLs, Automatic Grenade Launchers.
The last two containers contained the other weapons that were promised.
"You got enough in there to start your own little war," Knight said.
In fact, they were destined for Nicaraguan rebels who were going to use them in fighting the corrupt socialist government that was allowing the drug cartels to run wild.
"What they'll be used for doesn't concern you," Perry said.
"Not at all. Not as long as we get paid what we're owed."
"Do you have somewhere we can complete the purchase?"
"My office should do nicely," Knight said. He waved for Perry to follow him into the superstructure.
The interior was even worse than the exterior. Cracked linoleum covered the floor, the walls were covered in grime, and the flickering fluorescent lights gave the corridor a sickly glow.
Knight limped slightly while he walked, and he coughed from exertion as they climbed a flight of stairs. Perry wondered who would be the first to go under, Knight or the Portland.
They walked into the captain's office, and Perry was assaulted by a putrid stench that nearly knocked him over.
Knight noticed his expression and closed the door to the bathroom. "Gotta get that toilet fixed." He gestured to the teetering metal chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat."
Perry perched on the edge of the chair. He'd have to toss his clothes overboard after he returned to the Mant’cora.
Knight plopped himself into his seat and heaved his right leg up on the desk. He pulled the pant leg up to reveal a scuffed prosthetic limb grasping his leg just below the knee. He scratched at the edge of it and said with a grin, "I'll find that white whale one of these days."
"Captain Knight, can we conclude this transaction?" Perry asked. "We have a schedule to keep."
"Of course. I'm only too happy to get paid."
Perry took out his phone. "Please tell me the account number and I'll have the money transferred."
"We don't have WiFi on board the Portland."
"I'm connected to the Mant’cora's router."
"Someday we got to get one of those." Knight picked up a scrap of paper and read off a string of numbers.
For a moment, Perry wondered if he could get away with simply faking the transfer of ten million dollars, but he thought better of it and keyed in the instructions. When the transfer was complete, he told Knight. The grizzled captain picked up the battered phone sitting on his desk and called the radio room to confirm.
After a lengthy delay, he smiled and nodded before hanging up the phone.
"Looks like we've got ourselves a sale," Knight said. Perry was relieved that he didn't offer to shake hands again.
"Then I'll let the captain of the Mant’cora know that we can start moving the containers."
"That sounds fine. Why don't you watch from the bridge with me?"
They walked up to the bridge, where they were met by three crewmen. The bridge was just as revolting as the rest of the ship. Discarded cans and cigarette butts littered the floor. The glass dials on several of the instruments were cracked. One of the windows had been blown out, was now covered with plywood and duct tape.
One of the crew said, "The captain of the Mant’cora has asked for permission to pull alongside so they can start lifting the containers."
"Permission denied," Knight said, his accent suddenly gone.
Perry whipped his head around. "What are you talking about?"
"We got what we came for."
"You're backing out on the deal?" Perry asked in shock.
"Why not? The money is sitting safely in our account now. We've got better things to do with those weapons than let them be used in some private war of yours in Nicaragua."
Perry's mouth hung open. "How did you . . .?"
"We have people everywhere."
"You've made a big mistake. There is a squad of commandos on board our ship, ready to take over the Portland just in case you double-crossed us. You can't possibly think you'll get away from us in this atrocity of a ship."
Knight nodded at the Mant’cora. "You think you can catch us in that thing?"
"Easily," Perry scoffed.
"In that case," he said, speaking up as if he were talking into a microphone, "Weapons Officer, destroy their bridge."
To Perry's utter disbelief, plates in the hull and deck slid aside, revealing a six-barreled Gatling gun like those found on Navy warships for shooting down missiles. It spun up and unleashed a torrent of shells at the defenseless Mant’cora. Perry put his hands over his ears as they were assaulted by the deafening buzz saw noise.
The explosive rounds ripped into the cargo ship's superstructure, chewing through glass, metal, and flesh. The bridge was instantly transformed into a slaughterhouse. No one inside could have survived.
The Mant’cora began to drift, and the crew members in the lifeboat that had transported Perry to the Portland dashed to safety on the other side of the stricken cargo ship.
Commandos burst onto the Mant’cora's deck with weapons at the ready. They knelt and raised their assault rifles. One had an RPG.
"Now, we can't have that," Knight said. "Take care of them."
The Gatling gun swung around and raked the deck. The commandos didn't stand a chance. The rounds were so powerful that there was little left of the men besides slicks of blood.
Perry felt like he was going to be sick. He stared at Knight in shock. "We had an agreement. Do you realize who you're dealing with?"
Knight shrugged, as unconcerned as if he'd swatted a fly. "Tell your bosses we don't need them any longer. We have more profitable clients now."
With incredible power for a man missing one leg, Knight took Perry by the shoulders and shoved him onto the bridge's wing. When they reached the railing, Knight threw him over the side with no more effort than if he were a doll. Perry fell five stories to the water below.
When he surfaced, gasping for air, Perry saw the Portland's Gatling gun disappear behind the hull plates. Her engines hummed to life, and the ship pivoted neatly until her prow was facing the Mant’cora. Another hull plate in her bow slid aside, revealing a cannon the size of the main gun on a destroyer. The cannon took aim at the cargo ship and fired five shots in quick succession. The armor-piercing rounds blew massive holes in the hull at the waterline.
The Mant’cora began to tilt sideways as water poured into the holds. The remaining crew on board emerged on deck with life jackets and jumped overboard.
Knight stood on the bridge wing of the Portland enjoying the spectacle. He looked down at Perry and gave him a jaunty wave before going inside.
The plate covering the cannon slid closed again. The Portland turned and shot away as if launched by a catapult. Her speed was as impossible as her hidden guns, but Perry couldn't deny what he was seeing.
Seconds later, the Mant’cora turned turtle, water cascading off her keel. It was only a matter of time before she went to the bottom. The lifeboat was busy picking up the waterlogged survivors.
As he treaded water waiting to be picked up, Perry wondered how he was going to spin this disaster to his supervisor at the CIA.
Off the coast of Brazil
Michael Bradley sat on a bench seat in the Kansas City's mess hall while the boat's corpsman, Jeremy Noland, looked at his ears. The smell of bacon from the crew's breakfast still hung in the air. Like many Los Angeles-class submarines, the KC had no onboard physician nor a dedicated infirmary, but Noland could handle anything short of major surgery. Bradley drummed his fingers on the table's blue padding as he waited for a diagnosis.
The Navy SEAL had endured pain and loss of hearing in both his ears for a few days, but had avoided seeing Noland because he knew that might take him out of the upcoming naval maneuvers with Brazil. But when he'd woken up this morning, he couldn't understand anything his CO was saying, and he was sent to get checked out despite his protests.
"What's the bad news?" Bradley asked. His own voice sounded like he was speaking into a pillow.
Noland, a thin guy with wispy blond hair, stepped back and frowned. His mouth moved, but all Bradley heard were muffled vowels, like those spoken by the unintelligible teacher on TV's Peanuts.
"I didn't get any of that."
Noland took a pad and pen from his pocket and jotted something down. When he was finished, he held it toward Bradley.
I think you have acute bilateral otitis media. Massive infection. Filling the middle ear with fluid. Should have come to me earlier.
"Yeah, yeah," Bradley said, annoyed with himself even more than with Noland. "What do we do about it now?"
Antibiotic shot, then oral antibiotics. Lots of fluids. Bunk rest.
Bradley's heart sank.
Three days. Depends on how long it takes for your hearing to normalize.
"Three days! Maneuvers start tomorrow. I've got to prep for an op."
Sorry, bud. Your eardrums are under massive pressure and could rupture. Then you might be out for weeks.
Bradley slammed his fist on the table. He was supposed to be piloting the SEAL Delivery Vehicle for the first time. He was even going to get to fire one of its two torpedoes. The SDV was stowed in the dry deck shelter mounted on top of the Kansas City's hull.
He was there the day that the bus-sized shelter had been delivered by a C-17 cargo plane to be installed on top of the KC. The middle section was attached to a hatch aft of the conning tower. That hatch gave access to the shelter's air lock, also called a transfer trunk. On its bow side was a decompression chamber for treating Special Forces operators returning from missions in deep water. On the stern side of the lock was a protective water-filled hangar holding the sixteen-foot-long SDV-really, a miniature submarine that wasn't pressurized. The Mark 9 was the newest version, and Bradley had been training for a month how to use it in an operational setting. Now his mission was down the drain because of an illness for a six-year-old.
"Fine," he growled. "Give me the antibiotics."
Noland handed him a second pad and pen.
You'll need guys to write on that if you want to understand anything. Then Noland pointed to the door and mimed like he was thumbing the plunger of a syringe.
Bradley nodded, and Noland left him to stew about having to tell his CO he'd be out of commission for the op.
A minute later, Bradley saw two men race by in the corridor outside the mess. He couldn't tell if they were just goofing off or if there was an emergency. If the crew had been sent to action stations, he would at least have heard an alarm even if he couldn't understand what was being said over the loudspeaker.