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For AMBER EDWARDS
Our “Present Friend”
30Â°8' N, 9Â°30' E
Tunisian Border near Ghadamis
395 Miles South of Tripoli
heckpoint,” said Janson.
Two Toyota pickups, angled nose to nose a mile ahead. The narrow oiled road, a service track for a string of high-tension power lines, was banked six or eight feet above the rolling desert. A tracked combat vehicle and a trained driver might get around it. A stolen taxi with an amateur at the wheel didn't have a hope.
“Government or rebel?” asked Kincaid. She sat in back with a dented Leica slung from her neck.
Janson, sitting in front to calm the driver, scoped the pickups with an eight-power monocular lens. Civilians caught between loyalists and rebels clogged the roads to the border, so he had directed the taxi farther south through hot, windblown land edged by rock ridges and speckled with the pyramidal silhouettes of camels grazing on thin groundcover.
He steadied the instrument with two hands. “Black mercenariesâ¦ bullpup assault riflesâ¦ truck on the left is towing a Type 63 rocket launcher.”
Kincaid hid their rebel pass under the driver's seat and handed Janson government-issued business visas sponsored by a Tripoli importer of irrigation pumps for the Great Man-Made River ProjÂect Authority. Young and fit, she wore a scarf over her short brown hair, loose cargo pants, and a baggy, sweat-stained long-sleeved shirt. Her papers said she worked for the publicity department of the Infrastructure and Minerals unit of KBR. She sat still as ice.
Janson's visa named him a hydraulic engineering manager with the same unit. He was older than Kincaid, a nondescript man with iron-gray, close-cropped hair. Faint lines of scar tissue on his hands and face and a hint of bulk under his loose shirt suggested a career ladder that had started at the bottom as an oil-patch roughneck slogging through night school. He was as calm as the woman in the backseat, almost serene.
“We'll get through this fine,” he told the driver. “Just take it easy.”
It was clear to the driver that neither American understood the danger. African mercenaries were trigger-happy in the best of times. They'd be better off facing rebels who were anxious to look good on CNN. The government's foreign soldiers did not care what the world thought; their backs were to the wall, and for them it was win or die.
Worse, the officer commanding the checkpoint wore the insignia of the 32nd Brigade, the infamous Deterrent Battalion. He was not about to “join the people's struggle.” Not only did he enjoy elite status, he knew that rich rewards awaited the officer who captured the dictator's turncoat son. If the traitor was lucky enough to be caught by the rebels instead of the loyalists, they might preserve him as a hostage. The loyalists would kill him, and whoever delivered the traitor's head to his father would receive a medal and a villa in the best neighborhood.
The soldiers raised their rifles.
“Slow down,” said Janson. “Keep both hands on the wheel.” He laid his own hands in full view on the dashboard, papers under his left. Kincaid gripped the back of the driver's seat with hers.
The driver, a bare-headed man in his thirties dressed in fake designer jeans and a shabby white shirtâthe costume of North Africa's disaffected hordes of overeducated underemployedâfelt an overwhelming impulse to stomp on the accelerator and run down the soldiers. If he stopped, the best they could hope for was the mercenaries would rough them up and tear the car apart. God help the woman if the officer let them at her. Would it not be better to take a chance and put their fate in the hands of Allah?
“Slow down,” Janson repeated. “Do not provoke them.”
Everything he and Kincaid had encountered trying to cross the borderâfear-crazed civilians, jumpy mercenaries, roving rebel unitsâindicated that the revolution had tumbled into chaos. No surprise after forty years of rule by a psychotic. But the fact that the loyalists were utterly distracted by a mad hunt to catch one foolish traitor took the cake.
The psychotic dictator, the self-named “Lion of the Desert,” had spawned eight sons. Four of themâthe playboy, the Army commander, the family's oil-company director, and the transport minsterâwere national figures seen regularly on state TV and feted abroad in Rome and Paris. Another, who had become an obscure imam in a remote province, had disappeared behind a priestly beard; and the gay one who had fled to Milan hadn't been seen in years. The same was true of the youngest son, Yousefâ“The Cub”âwho had studied computer science in the United States.
The Cub's face was not familiar, his photograph never published. The best intelligence confirmed that he had won trust from his father that his brothers never had because he had modernized internal security to control cell-phone communication and Internet access. Twitter and Facebook were indulged at the Lion's pleasure. He could shut them down with a word.
Hope that Yousef would steer the old despot in enlightened directions had been shattered in the first bloody days of the revolt when the Lion vowed to fight to the death. The Army was fragmenting, his cabinet resigning, and murderous civil war was certain. The political standoff and the threat of NATO bombing had even some loyalists whispering for the old man's ouster.
Yousef had panicked, fearing prosecution for war crimes. Then Italy offered an out. Trying to stop the slaughter, and positioning herself as a savior of the oil-state's business elite, Italy promised asylum. Like everything else in the conflict, it had come too late. Before Yousef could surrender, the fighting turned chaotic. He was on the run, last seen in the oasis town of Ghadamis.
Janson repeated, hard as a round racked into a chamber. The driver took his foot off the gas, convinced that if he tried to run the checkpoint, Janson would kill him before the soldiers could fire their rifles.
*Â Â *Â Â *
HE SOLDIERS GESTURED
them out of the car. The Deterrent Battalion officer glanced at their papers. “Open the trunk.”
“No key,” said the driver.
“Shoot the lock.” The mercenaries aimed casually in the general direction of the lock, fired a dozen rounds, then aimed carefully as one stood to the side and tipped the lid up with the barrel of his rifle.
The trunk held a bullet-riddled spare tire and a bright green Libya national soccer bag. The officer opened it. His eyes widened. He plunged his hand inside and withdrew a banded stack of hundred-euro bills. “Is this yours?”
Janson said, “No. I had no idea it was in there. Perhaps you could take charge of it.”
The officer gestured, and a soldier sprayed the taxi's hood with a crescent of green paint. “Go. If you run into any more checkpoints, that will get you through. Sorry for the inconvenience. Tell the world you were treated decently.”
The officer cuffed the driver on the back of his head and kicked his leg, herding him back to the car. The driver stiffened at the insult. Janson shoved him behind the wheel. Kincaid called to the officer, “May I take your photograph, please?”
An engaging smile warmed her face. The officer squared his shoulders for her camera, wondering how he had missed at first glance that she was an unusually attractive woman.
Janson walked unhurriedly around the front of the taxi, climbed in, and said, “Drive. Before they change their mind.”
The driver stomped the accelerator and the old taxi rolled away.
*Â Â *Â Â *
HE GREEN SPRAY-PAINT
pass and a hundred-euro bribe got them across the border.
Tunisian authorities, overwhelmed with refugees desperate for food, water, and shelter, waved them on to the airport. A twin-engine Embraer Legacy 650 landed. The long-haul executive jet was owned by Catspaw AssociatesâJanson's corporate-security consultant outfit of independent contractors linked 24/7 by Internet and secure phone into an ethereal amalgam of freelance researchers, IT specialists, and field agents.
Janson and Kincaid helped their pilots unload tents, blankets, and bottled water. Fifteen minutes after the plane touched down, its big Rolls-Royce engines hurled it back into the sky carrying Paul Janson, Jessica Kincaid, and the dictator's son Yousef dressed like an overeducated, underemployed North African taxi driver.
Now, One Year Later
5Â° S, 52Â°50' E
Indian Ocean, 700 Miles off the East African Coast
En Route: MahÃ©, Seychelles Islands, to Mombasa, Kenya
was making eighteen knots between the Seychelles Islands and Mombasa. Built on a Kortenaer-class frigate's hull, she had a warship's profileâa high bow, a clean sweep to a low sternâand a strikingly graceful superstructure by Parisian designer Jacques Thomas, famous for resurrecting the fluid curves of the Art Nouveau in bent glass and carbon-fiber-reinforced epoxy. She was pointing west, burnished bright and shining by the sunset. Seen from a low-slung skiff racing flat out on a course to intercept,
appeared to skim the surface of the Indian Ocean like a fiery dragonfly.
A crew of twenty men and women attended the fully automated ship, her middle-aged owner, Allen Adler, and Adler's guests. She carried two helicoptersâeach painted gold with Adler's initials emblazoned red on its tail boomâa ten-place Sikorsky S-76D on a pad amidships and a light-turbine five-place Bell Ranger on the foredeck. Two twenty-passenger high-speed tenders were cradled at the stern in a well deck, which was a bay that could be flooded in order to launch the boats. Also sharing the well deck was a fifty-three-foot blue-water sloop, an ocean-passage Nautor Swan that would make a millionaire proud.
Night was falling quickly, as it did so near the equator. Five of Adler's guestsâa former fashion model, a retired United Nations diplomat and his wife, and a New York real estate agent and her husbandâgathered for cocktails to watch the sun set from a forward lounge under the steering bridge.
The sixth, Allegra Helms, a thirty-year-old Italian countess with pale blue eyes and long blond hair, joined their host on the bridge itselfâa spacious, glass-enclosed aerie with views in four directions of the darkening sea. Adler was trying to impress her by driving the yacht. To demolish his expectations of a hookup, she had packed an outfit that her mother would have bought from Valentino's resort collectionâmonastically simple high-waisted white linen yachting slacks with a boat-neck blouseâand an HermÃ¨s scarf, screen-printed with her family device in a pattern so minute that only a cousin or an ancient enemy would recognize it.
A round German stewardess in a short, tight skirt brought a tray of marinated shrimp and sea scallops. She returned with a Champagne bucket, opened a bottle of Cristal with quiet efficiency, and poured two glasses.
“That's all,” Adler said patting her behind. “Outta here. You too, Captain Billy,” he told the officer watching the instrument cluster that surrounded the auto-helm.
Allegra Helms was kicking herself for accepting a last-minute invitation from a man she had known only through a mutual acquaintance. Now she was trapped in the middle of the ocean on a boat full of boring strangers. She could dodge the other guests, but there was no escaping their host, who just would not shut up about his money and his fucking yacht.
“Biggest in the worldâ460 feet, 3,550 tonsâand I had her teched-up so I can drive her with a smart-phone app.” Adler swigged Champagne, indicating with a nod that Allegra should help herself, and resumed his monologue with a joke she had heard twice at dinner the night they sailed. “I don't know what I'm paying the captain for.”
An alarm sounded a staccato chirp. Allegra saw the captain's eyes shoot to the radar monitor, and she noticed an orange dot flare briefly. Adler brushed past him and flipped a switch to mute the noise that was interrupting his delivery.
“I can run this baby from the middle of Kansas. Captain Billy, what am I paying you for?”
Allegra glanced at the captain, a sun-polished symphony of curly chestnut hair and Viking cheekbonesâspeaking of hookups, if she were considering one, which she was not. Not with her husband meeting her in Mombasa. And never, ever, when trapped on a boat.
run her from the middle of Kansas,” Billy Titus answered with an affable smile as he fiddled the radar's controls. “You pay me so you don't have to.”
Adler glared. “Fact is I pay him a bonus to save on fuel, and I fine him when he wastes it. Isn't that right, Captain Billy?”
“Go grab a bite. The countess and I will run the ship.”
“Keep an eye on the radar.”
“Get out of here.”
“I mean it, sir. If you see pirates before they get too close, we can cut in the turbines and get the heck away.”
“I guarantee you that no pirates will bother me. Go get something to eat and leave us alone. I'll call you back when I need you.”
“The hunting season just started, Mr. Adler. The monsoon's over, and the water is calm enough for small boats.”
Captain Titus took his time checking the radar once again, before he turned on his heel and left the bridge.
Alone with Allegra, Adler said, “My captain is a regular comedian.”
“Che buona figura.”
“What does that mean?”
“It meansâ¦ He has a great imageâhandsomeâand you could also count on him to do the right thing.”
“I don't get it.”
“It would be hard for you to understand. It means he's a gentleman.”
Adler heard the challenge and threw it back at her. “You saw me grab that girl's ass. You think there's something wrong with that?”
She turned her back on him and studied the radar screen, which showed an empty sea in every direction. Adler was more alert than she had thought, and she wondered idly whether he used his crudeness to confuse business rivals into underestimating him.
Adler said, “She'd be disappointed if I didn't grab her ass. She'd think I was mad at her.”
When Allegra still remained silent, Adler demanded, “What do you think?”
She was thinking about her husband, who was currently rooting around East Africa like a truffle pig on his incessant hunt for oil and gas concessions. It would be nice to have him around if Adler became any more of a pain.
“I think you remind me of my father.”
Adler's face hardened. “I'm not old enough to be your father. I'm forty-eight.”
He was fifty-eight, she knew for a factâthough remarkably fit and still handsome, with looks that would age well. She said, “My father gropes the servants too.”
“Oh yeah? What does your mother think of that?”
“We've never discussed it.”
Adler blinked. Then he switched tactics, though not his manner. “How much money does your husband make running American Synergy?”
“He doesn't run all of ASC. He's president of the Petroleum Division.”
“The Petroleum Division is their number-one profit center. What do they pay him to run it?”
“I haven't the vaguest idea.”
That stopped him again, though only a moment. “You don't care?”
“I'd rather feel young than rich.”
Adler winced, as she hoped he would. But it didn't shut him up. “How long do you think that will last?” he shot back.
“How can you guarantee that pirates won't attack us?”
“I cut a deal with Bashir Mohamed. Bashir's âking' of Somalia's pirates. He gave me a pass for protection. No one will attack my yacht.”
“How can he guarantee other pirates won't attack?”
“They're afraid of him. He's organized them. Anyone gets independent, he turns them over to the UN's African Union Army, or the Combined Maritime Force. They include the Chinese and Russians, who play a lot rougher than the US and EU. Or he pays somebody to kill them. Piracy is the same as any business: you make money by controlling the market, and you control the market by clearing out independents.”
“What did you offer Bashir Mohamed in return?”
“You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
At last, she thought, Adler was becoming interesting. Allegra smiled a smile that warmed her pale eyes. She ran her fingers through her hair. “You must tell me,” she said. A beguiling hint of an Italian accent lent music to her fluent English. “You've made an interesting story.”
“Do you know anything about New York?”
“I was sent to school there, as a girl.”
“OK. That explains a few things.”
“You act less like a countess than a New York rich kid.”
“So what did you offer Bashir Mohamed?”
“I sit on the boards of private schools like Nightingale. Not theirs, but others. In exchange for
's safe passage, Bashir Mohamed's firstborn son has a spot guaranteed in preschool. I swear that's the truth. That's all it took. He's dreaming preschool to prep school to Harvard.”
Allegra Helms laughed. “Well done, Mr. Adler.”
“I keep telling you, call me Allen.”
“Whatever you say, Allen.”
“Now you tell me something. Why'd you accept my invite to come on this cruise?”
“As I told you. I just finished a job in the Seychelles. I was ready to leave.”
Tiring of his attitude, Allegra Helms answered with a dismissive gesture that reduced his lavish yacht to a commodity. “Men who've made money recently need to be assured that a copy of a Holbein portrait was painted by the master's protÃ©gÃ© instead of a master forger.”
“Maybe I should hire you to vet my paintings.”
Allegra shrugged. In the tight-knit world of high art, it was known that Adler was advised by yes-women who spent baskets of his money on nothing particularly interesting. Surprise, surprise. “When you invited me, I thought my husband might join me in Mombasa for a little get-together. We've both been traveling, for a while.”
“I have never seen a âtrial separation' that didn't work.”
Stung, and annoyed with herself that she had revealed too much to Adler, Allegra Helms said, “It wasn't exactly a separationâNo, that's not true. It
a trial separation, and it is working very well. I am very much looking forward to reuniting with my husband in Mombasa.” She could hardly believe her ears, but there, she had said it. Out loud and in front of a witness.
“You look surprised,” Adler said.
“I am,” she said with a smile and a shiver of happiness she had not felt in a long time. “But I shouldn't be surprised, should I? He is still the man I wanted ten years ago. He is handsome. He is decisive. And I like that he is self-made. It gives him a sureness that is deep because he earned it.”
like me,” Adler cracked. “I earned mine, too.”
It struck Allegra that in one way Adler
like Kingsmanâa man convinced that he deserved whatever he wanted
he wanted it. That was a reminder not to go overboard hoping for more for their marriage than could happen on a short visit in Mombasa. But wasn't it still worth a try? And still worth hoping?
Adler said, “Why don't I pinch-hit for him till we get to Mombasa?”
“Why don't you try Monique,” she replied, pulling away. The striking Moniqueâa favorite Galliano model before Galliano wrecked his careerâwas an anxious brunette in her forties, nearly hysterical on the subject of her age, and in the market for a wealthy boyfriend if not a husband, Allegra had learned in the briefest of conversations the first night.
“I prefer countesses to fashion models,” Adler said, moving closer. “I checked out your family, you're the real deal.”
“Quite clearly,” said Allegra Helms, “you invited Monique along in case it didn't work out with me. It didn't and it never will. I am married. I'm going down below now. I'll send Monique up here.”
“You are a piece of work.” Adler's laughter was cut off by the astonishingly loud noise of a sustained burst of gunfire. The firing went on and on, the sound of the shots blurring like a jackhammer tearing up a street.
*Â Â *Â Â *
REED MAKES MEN BRAVE,
thought Maxammed, the pirates' captain.
Triple pay for the first to board the yacht: an immediate three million Somali shillingsâone hundred American dollarsâplus the promise of a Toyota 4Runner after the ransom was paid, sparked a vicious struggle between two clan brothers vying to climb the ladder they had propped against the low stern of the moving ship.
“Keep going!” Maxammed shouted. He was a tall, wiry Somali of thirty-five, with a high and broad forehead, strong white teeth, and light brown skin, and he leaped with practiced grace on the foredeck of a fiberglass skiff that was bouncing violently in
's wake. He wore a flak vest, the only pirate so protected, and a bandolier of machine-gun bullets. The bandolier was for the shock effect. His weapon was a magazine-fed SAR 80 assault rifle with the stock chopped so he could wave it in one hand like a pistol.
“Go! Go! Go!”
they wouldn't shoot each other. He was undermanned already, with only twelve fighters and one of the first-time boys so seasick that he lay paralyzed in the bottom of the skiff, too exhausted to even retch the nonexistent contents of a stomach emptied days ago.
Maxammed saw a shotgun poke over the stern.
The pirate who had made it to the top of the ladder first froze. The sailor from the yacht who was pointing the shotgun, a Christian Filipino wearing a silver Jesus cross around his neck, froze also, too gentle to shoot his fellow man even when his life was in danger.
Maxammed triggered his SAR. The sailor tumbled off the boat. Maxammed led the rest of his crew up the ladder onto the yacht and sprinted forward to seize the steering bridge and disable satellite phones, radios, and emergency tracking beacons.