The Devil's Trinity: first two chapters
Harry Marsham, who was known as Marsh to his friends, should have died that night. His lifelong friend and business partner in their underwater exploration business, Greg Walsh was not so lucky. When the freighter loomed up out of the darkness and struck their yacht, the Ocean Quest, it caught it amidships and rolled it over into the dark waters of the sea, crushing the boat like matchwood. Luck was on Marsh’s side that night; he had a marginally better chance than Walsh because he was standing on the open deck. He was waiting to climb the main mast to check a faulty riding light, which had failed for no apparent reason. Walsh was rummaging about below decks. He had gone there to look for a torch and spare bulbs, and to see if he could figure out why the battery power had failed.
The two men were on their yacht about eight hundred miles south east of Cuba, in the Caribbean Sea. It was past midnight, but the stars were no longer visible because of the low cloud cover. The sea was calm and the air was hot and oppressive, with the heat being clamped in by the clouds, and there was no breeze to give them respite from the heat. The yacht was becalmed, its sails hanging limp.
They drifted gently on the ocean, invisible, unseen and unseeing. Marsh was standing on the deck thinking about the riding light clamped to the mast. The slight swell of the sea lifted the Ocean Quest gently. Marsh peered up the mast, waiting for Walsh to bring up a torch or a spare bulb. He couldn’t see much, but he felt as though he was doing something positive, even if just standing there looking was sufficient.
Then a sound reached his ear that was different. Despite the calm, the yacht pitched and fell gently, but suddenly there was a subtle change in the rhythm. A sound that made him turn his head and look into the inky blackness.
He could see nothing. He kept his hand on the mast and felt the rise and fall of the yacht beneath the soles of his deck shoes. But the yacht moved slightly abeam. The breeze chilled his legs and the hairs on his neck began to lift. He peered again, this time more intently. Was there something out there? Was there a whale beneath the surface, swimming close by? His hand dropped away from the mast and he took a step forward and that was when he saw the ship looming like a colossus, coming straight at them out of the night.
Marsh opened his mouth to scream out a warning to Walsh, but the warning cry stopped in his throat, cut off by the timbre of raw fear and unbelief that buried itself deep into his conscience and rendered him momentarily speechless. He tried to shout again but the freighter struck, and in an instant the Ocean Quest lifted. A shudder ran through the boat as the huge, scarred prow of the ship smashed through the hull, split the yacht in two and pitched Marsh out into the dark waters of the ocean.
He felt his world spinning as the ship cut through the yacht, crushing everything in its path, its own inertia turning the sea into a maelstrom of shattered timber and boiling, foaming water.
Marsh knew he was about to die. It was inescapable; he knew that there was nothing he could do that could save him as the yacht disintegrated and the sea enveloped him, filling his mouth and lungs with its salty bitterness.
An indescribable force spun him over and over and he could feel the cold steel of the ship’s hull raking his flesh. Hard, ripping barnacles tore at his skin, slashing his clothing and opening up cuts all over his body. His instant, uncontrollable reflexes made him scream out in pain, but no sound came because his mouth was filled instantly with water, and his soul filled with unimaginable fear. He coughed and choked, fighting like a madman, thrashing his arms about in a tremendous battle to get away from the steel hull of the ship and the life giving air on the surface.
Marsh had never considered himself a brave man although all his working life he had devoted himself to the sea and the world that lay beneath it. The sea was like a second home to him. He loved it. He had seen and experienced its vagaries, its power and its tranquillity, and he had never feared it; he had always respected it. And he had always known that he could die in it. Now it threatened to engulf him and drag him deep into its depths; no longer a friend but a mortal enemy.
He kicked out desperately as the hull of the ship banged into him again and blind panic seized him. His own, inherent fear drove him into a frenzied anger, responding like a trapped animal fighting for its life. He thought he had forced himself away from the danger but again he felt the hull of the ship and knew he could be pulled in by the power of the ship’s screws. He pushed hard with both legs and struck out with a superhuman effort to draw himself away from the pull of the swirling water and the fear of being drawn into the threshing screws.
How long he was under the water he didn’t know, but it felt like an eternity to Marsh. The reality was that he had been under for little more than thirty seconds, which for a man of Marsh’s experience was of no consequence; but the pain and violence seemed to go on for ever. Eventually he broke clear of the surface in a fit of choking and coughing. Each indrawn breath closed his throat like a trap, shutting out the sweet, blessed, life giving air. He trod water and tried desperately to control his breathing, but his natural, life preserving instincts kept him gasping like a drowning man. Slowly the coughing subsided and at last he felt some measure of control returning.
Marsh trod water as he turned round, looking for the ship that had just run them down. He saw it slide by like a moving mountain, no more than fifty feet from him. He backed away and swam further into calmer water. Then he stopped and looked back at the ship, its bulk merging with the night. Then a wave sloshed over his head and he lost sight of the ship.
He thought suddenly of his friend and forgot everything about the ship. He called out Walsh’s name, spinning round, searching for him in the swell of the water. The wash from the ship kept breaking over him. The salt was beginning to sting his eyes and from time to time he would suddenly drop beneath the water. But despite that, he kept calling out his friend’s name.
He could see very little, just the phosphorescence of the sloughing wave tops. He kept calling until his voice became quite hoarse and he realised that it was pointless; Walsh wasn’t there. He felt an overwhelming sadness engulf him when the reality dawned on him. He also felt a gnawing disbelief and anger that fate had been so cruel that in the vast expanse of that ocean, they should end up becalmed right in the path of that ship. But the noise and the violence were over now. It was quiet and he was quite alone.
It took Marsh quite some time to calm down and think of the dangerous situation he was in. He was beginning to feel the stinging effects of the salt water on his cuts, and knew there was a distinct possibility that the smell of his blood would attract any sharks in the vicinity. There was nothing he could do, he realised that. If the sharks took him, that would be the end. There would be no rescue; no miraculous survival.
What he could do though was to consider exactly what his position was and what chance he had of being rescued. It was all pointless and the thought disappeared from his head as quickly as it had entered; he had no chance.
He twisted round, letting the dying swell lift him. He knew he was about five hundred miles south east of Jamaica and about eight hundred miles south east of Cuba. But he knew he could have been in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for all the difference it would make; he was miles from land and would probably drown before any hope of rescue came.
Marsh didn’t really know why Greg Walsh had chosen to sail this far from their base in Freeport in the Bahamas. It wasn’t unusual for the two of them and Walsh’s wife, Helen, to go off sailing for a few days, particularly when business was slack. Walsh had been unusually reticent about his plans, simply telling Marsh that he felt like a longer cruise this time and not simply a quick jaunt around the islands. Marsh was relieved that Helen had chosen to remain at the boatyard and catch up on paperwork and a little shopping in Freeport.
He looked up at the sky, hoping to see a star; some small, bleak light of comfort, a small crumb. His only hope now lay in the ship that had run them down. He knew it would take some distance for the ship to stop and lower a boat. For that was surely what they would do. He knew there was no way the crew on watch could have failed to see them, even though the Ocean Quest was without navigation lights. The noise and sudden impact would not have gone un-noticed anyway. They would certainly turn back and begin a search of the area.
He slipped beneath the surface. The water was suddenly cold on his face. It startled him and he kicked out, bursting through the surface, blowing the water out of his nose and mouth. The salt stung his throat. He dragged a hand over his face, pushing the hair away from his eyes. As the water lapped over his shoulders he began stroking out vigorously. Marsh knew he could only do this for so long; then exhaustion would overtake him and he would succumb and drown.
He searched again but he was trying to search through almost total darkness. And at sea level, he would only be able to see a few yards. It meant that any boat launched to find them would fail because they would also be limited by their field of vision. He decided to swim in the direction the ship was heading, but then realised that he was too disorientated to figure out which way to go. And there was no moonlight either. He did think of searching round for some of the debris from the Ocean Quest. Perhaps he could cling to some flotsam. But come daylight he would probably have become shark meat.
Then, quite suddenly, just for a brief moment he thought he saw the ship. He tried to concentrate and focus his vision in the area the silhouette of the ship appeared to be. He started swimming towards it, hope against hope.
He soon realised that the silhouette was indeed no vision; the ship was there and she was stationary. Strangely though she was much closer than he would have expected, given the distance a ship needs to come to a halt. Then he realised why he could not see the ship clearly in the darkness; she was carrying no lights!
Marsh stopped swimming. Apprehension and curiosity began to tease at his mind. Why would the ship be carrying no lights? And because she was so close and stationary, did that mean she was already stopping when she smashed into the Ocean Quest?
He began swimming again, cautiously this time. But whatever the reasons for this mystery, that ship was Marsh’s only hope of survival and he had to take it. As he swam he called out, shouting as loud as he could; but his voice was like a thin reed in a non-existent breeze, and it barely carried across the water.
For a while he thought his brain was playing tricks on him and the ship was still moving. The distance between him and the freighter was difficult to judge. He was making little progress and the ship didn’t seem to be getting any closer. But he could see no tell-tale phosphorescent wake from the ship, which meant the screws were not turning. It lifted his spirits again and he swam more strongly even though the apprehension hadn’t left him.
Marsh had been in the water for about thirty minutes when he reached the stern of the ship. He had hoped to hear the sound of voices as a boat was being lowered to search for survivors of the collision, but there was nothing, no movement, no lights of any kind; just silence.
He cupped his hands to his mouth and called out. The sound carried up to the ship but seemed to bounce off the hull. He called again but still the ship seemed lifeless. It was as though there was not a soul on board. He thought of the old mariners’ stories of ghost ships. But that’s all they ever were to Marsh: just stories.
He frowned as he thought back to that moment on the Ocean Quest’s deck, just before the crushing impact of the ship. It was strange that there had been no sound; nothing to warn of the coming disaster. And as he bounced along the punishing hull there had been no force drawing him down into the threshing screws. It was as if the ship had been lifeless. And he thought of how quickly he had reached the ship in the circumstances. It meant only one thing to Marsh: when the ship struck the Ocean Quest, she was not under way. She was already stopping!
Marsh couldn’t accept it; there was no rational explanation. Not yet! He didn’t believe this ship was another Mary Celeste, another one of those ghost ships; there had to be life on board. He called out again.
“Ahoy there; you on board!”
There was no answer. He waited, treading water, his face turned upwards expectantly. He was getting cold too, despite the comparative warmth of the water. And tired too; his limbs were beginning to protest and the stinging pain from the cuts on his body seemed to be multiplying.
He called out again but there was still no response. He felt anger rising inside him now. The apprehension he had felt earlier was leaving him and he thrashed at the water furiously.
“For God’s sake,” he called out desperately. “If you have any compassion, answer me!”
But there was still silence.
A sense of futility and desperation was creeping over him and he began swimming, intending to circle the ship with the hope of finding some way on board, although how he expected to climb the sheer sides, he had no idea.
Then he heard voices.
The relief was crushing and overwhelming. Tears filled his eyes and he brushed then away. He guessed that his voice must have carried up to whoever was on watch at the time. He waited, listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the hull. The voices were stranger now, but in a language Marsh did not understand. Not that he cared.
He raised his arm above the water and called out. He expected to see some lights come on and he hoped that the whiteness of his hand would stand out in the beam of a searchlight. But for some inexplicable reason the decks remained cloaked in darkness.
Marsh began to sense a strange, uneasy doubt; an uncertainty that was marching against the feeling of relief he had experienced moments earlier. He knew there was all manner of illegal traffic in the Caribbean: drugs, arms, people smugglers. People like that would not be interested in somebody like him; his life would be of little worth to them. But on a ship this size he doubted if it was engaged in anything illegal.
Suddenly a light snapped on, its beam directed down towards the surface of the water. It moved rapidly, searching for him. Marsh called out, waving his arms furiously. As the beam moved towards him, Marsh swam into its small, comforting circle of light. It was quite intense and he had to shield his eyes from the glare. He shouted up at the unseen crew member holding the light.
He almost laughed then, a nervous, falsetto laugh. Here at last was sanctuary.
Then, without warning, there was the sound of a rifle shot. The bullet zipped through the still, night air, popping into the water. Then another shot followed instantly by a ‘pop’ as another bullet slammed into the sea beside him.
It was probably a couple of seconds before Marsh realised what was happening, but for him it seemed to be an unreal moment suspended in time before the awful, unreal truth dawned on him.
“Oh my God,” he cried. “No!”
The bullets punctured the water throwing up small columns as they peppered the pool of light on the surface. Marsh screamed and spun away from the circle, clawing madly in a desperate attempt to escape the creeping, deadly shots. The gun barked out its shattering message, each slap of the water moving inevitably towards him as the circle of light maintained its deadly grip on his desperate struggle.
He dived beneath the surface as a bullet ripped into his leg behind the knee. The pain was excruciating but Marsh knew he had to ignore it and pull himself down deeper beneath the water. He could still hear the plucking sounds as the bullets spent their energy just above his desperate struggle for survival.
He stopped well below the surface and turned towards the hull of the ship. The pain in his leg was almost too much to bear, but he knew he had to ignore it. He didn’t know what to do for his own survival, and all he could think of was to swim towards the belly of the freighter and find a dubious sanctuary.
As he touched the cold, metal surface of the ship, he paused and let himself drift slowly upwards until his head cleared the water. He stopped and pressed his cheek against the cold steel. He reached down and fingered the wound in his leg. He guessed that he wasn’t seriously injured; perhaps it was because the water had absorbed much of the bullet’s energy. But for all that, it still felt as if his leg had been severed. He knew the blood would be oozing from it and once more the fear of sharks crept up his spine.
Marsh looked back towards the circle of light. It was still moving about, still searching for him. There was no shooting now and the uncanny silence had returned. He trod water, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the light. He had no idea what to do now; if he swam away from the ship he would eventually drown. If he gave himself up and threw himself on their mercy…. No, they would kill him before he had even asked for sanctuary.
He heard a sudden splash, the sound of something entering the water. A boat perhaps? The sound came from the stern. Marsh was roughly amidships. The voices returned, shouting from the deck. They sounded agitated, but they were quick, clear, unmistakeable words of command and they flew from the deck above down to the men in the boat.
Marsh tensed, pulled his elbows in and let himself sink deeper until his nose was barely clear of the surface. His common sense told him he was in a trap from which there was no chance of escape. Swim away and drown or remain by the ship and be slaughtered. He knew he had little choice but to swim away, but where to?
Suddenly he heard another voice calling out excitedly. It was coming from the boat, and the man calling out was shouting wildly. The wavering beam of light stopped and moved rapidly across to the boat. It picked out some of the floating wreckage of the Ocean Quest. Now everybody seemed to be getting excited and there were voices issuing commands from everywhere. Marsh inched his way carefully along the hull, moving towards the bow. He intended to use the current distraction to make his way clear of the ship and as far away from it as possible.
Then a hand reached up out of the water and touched him.
Marsh gasped in sheer fright. His spine went rigid and a massive shudder plunged down his back. He spun round and instinctively lunged with his elbow. It thudded into something soft. He went rigid then as he saw Walsh’s corpse roll over and the pale, dead face came up from beneath the dark surface.
He almost lost the will to live then. His nerves were strung so taught they were almost at breaking point, and only a superhuman effort of will stopped him from screaming in uncontrollable terror. Seeing his friend float up from the deep like an underworld spectre, his white face masked in the appalling rictus of death was almost too much for Marsh’s singing nerves to take.
His spine loosened in another massive shudder and he pushed the corpse away. The cadaver refused to move and he lunged at it, feeling sick. He pulled his good leg up and gave the body a massive kick. It drifted from him, face up, away from the hull of the ship. Marsh clawed at the steel hull and pulled himself away from Walsh’s drifting body.
Suddenly there was a cry of exultation from the deck and a rapid succession of shots. Marsh could hear the bullets thudding into Walsh’s body. He saw it roll over under the thudding impact and the shooting stopped.
He was stunned by the horror of it all. He felt sick and weakened, and his strength seemed to be slipping away from him. The water lapped over his face and he felt lethargic and weak. Marsh knew the sea well; he had lived with it most of his life. It had always been a source of immense pleasure to him and he knew how it could turn suddenly and become a threat. He knew that to weaken was to succumb to its inherent menace and had learned to live with the dangers.
He now had to call on those years of experience and his own strength of will to restore his capacity for survival. There was still considerable danger and Marsh knew that he had to recognise that in order to cope with it and survive. There was still a great deal of shouting going on and he could see the men now in the rubber dinghy, shrouded in a circle of light, round Walsh’s body. It was an ironic twist of fate, he thought, that Walsh had saved him that night, even in death.
He considered his situation and knew it was hopeless; there was nothing he could do to resolve it. There would be no sanctuary on the ship and the sea offered no hope. He was hundreds miles from land. To the north lay the island of Haiti. Northwest was Jamaica and beyond that the yawning gap between the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba. Jamaica might just as well have been on the Moon for all the good it was going to do him. Whatever he tried, he would be dead within hours. If nothing else, the sharks would see to that.
He edged his way towards the bow of the ship, clinging to the hull, still not knowing what he would do. While the ship was there it was a floating sanctuary; a tangible hope; but all in the mind now.
He swam to the forward end of the freighter and round to the other side. Then he pushed away from the ship, knowing that the crew would only be interested in what was happening elsewhere and not in the darkness where he was. They had their quarry and would be seeking no more. He was about five yards from the ship when he suddenly swam into the anchor chain.
And that was when he saw the other ship!
He held on to the anchor chain, his mouth open in complete shock. He tried gathering his senses and marshalling his fading strength, to make sense out of all this. To see the other ship was certainly a complete shock, but as he reflected on it he soon realised that it was not as surprising as he had first thought; it was almost certainly a transfer of cargo that was about to take place and probably a haul of drugs or illicit arms. And whatever the reason was for these two ships to come together, it did not bode well for him.
And then he thought about Greg Walsh and his unusual decision to sail this far from Freeport for no other reason than he said he fancied a longer trip. Could it be possible, Marsh wondered, that Walsh expected these two ships to be here? And was his long standing friend and business partner involved in something covert and illegal? Whatever the answer was, Marsh realised that there was very little chance of finding out, because he was unlikely to survive much longer. Unless he could get on board the second ship unseen.
The second vessel was a lot smaller than the freighter that had smashed through the Ocean Quest, no more than about six thousand tons by Marsh’s reckoning. Because she was smaller, her draught was lower and offered him a better chance of getting on board and concealing himself.
He knew there was no way he could get up on to the deck of the freighter, although he had contemplated climbing up the anchor chain. To attempt it would have been suicidal. The smaller ship offered him a marginally better hope.
He began to edge his way carefully towards its stern of the freighter until he was able to pick out the name on the prow of the other ship. It was the Taliba.
Marsh stopped. He knew the boat and he knew who owned it, but there was no way in a million years that he would ever have suspected the man to be involved in something as dangerous as this. And that little knot of truth began to grow in him that his partner, Greg Walsh might have had foreknowledge of what these two ships would be doing here at this precise time and position. And it was that knowledge that meant he had not been killed in a tragic accident at sea.
He had been murdered!
About a week before the Ocean Quest had been sunk by the freighter, Remo Francesini of the American security service, the C.I.A., had stood in the waiting room of the military hospital at Cape Canaveral in Florida. He was waiting for a doctor to take him along to an isolation ward where a young man lay sick and dying. He was deep in thought and was concerned, not for the young man but for something else that weighed much heavier on his mind.
Francesini was a big man, over six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds. He had always prided himself on his fitness, much of which was a result of serving in the United States Marine Corps and subsequently as a member of the Navy Seals; the covert group of specialists who usually worked behind enemy lines on operations that required courage, stealth and a philosophical attitude to whatever fate had in store for them and to whatever their masters ordered them to do. He eventually left the military to join the NYPD.
Today he was at the hospital in his capacity as head of the Mission Support Office, which was responsible for collecting and collating intelligence information and reporting directly to the Deputy Director of Operations at the Central Intelligence Agency, the C.I.A. at Langley in West Virginia. Francesini’s boss was Admiral James Starling and it was the admiral who had insisted that he, Remo Francesini should visit the dying man at the hospital and not one of Remo’s subordinates, which would normally have been the case.
He was the only person in the waiting room. He was wearing green coveralls, a surgeon’s cap on his head and covers over his shoes. He would normally have been smoking one of his beloved Havana cigars, but smoking was banned in all American hospitals, so he contented himself with thinking about the reasons why he was there and where he would sooner be.
It was quiet and the walls, which were almost bare, save for a couple of naval prints, seemed to reflect a melancholy that fused with his own. There was a small table in the room and a couple of chairs. There was no reading material.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the twin towers, in September, 2001 by the Muslim terrorist organisation Al Qaeda, the whole of the C.I.A. and the White House had become jumpy at the slightest hint of another terrorist operation on American soil. The bosses at the top of the pile were more nervous than their underlings because it would be their heads and jobs on the line if their departments screwed up.
And Admiral Starling was no different, except that he had the C.I.A. Director of Operations bearing down on him who in turn had to contend with the Oval Office in the White House.
The melancholy feeling that settled in Francesini’s mind was the result of a feeling of hopelessness and a fear that he could not prevent another terror attack by Al Qaeda because their attacks were so difficult to predict or detect, despite the most sophisticated technology available and the magnificent and selfless efforts of the C.I.A. agents in the field.
Home grown terrorism was another factor that troubled him and the unbelievable willingness of second and third generation Arab Americans to support their Middle Eastern cousins in their appalling acts of murder.
A sixth sense told him that what he was about to see and hopefully hear, was a warning that had dropped into their laps by sheer good fortune. But even then, Francesini hadn’t a clue just how significant the warning would prove to be; his task was to glean as much from this as was humanly possible and pray that another atrocity would be avoided.
Sadly, the melancholy in him hid his usual countenance of good humour and confidence. He had a charisma that people usually warmed to, which meant never suspecting for a minute that his worries were ably hidden and could quite easily have been their worries.
A door opened and a naval officer stepped into the room. He was dressed in a similar fashion to Francesini.
“You can see him now, sir.”
Francesini walked towards the open door. “Any improvement?” he asked the young naval officer without any real hope.
The young man shook his head. “He’ll be lucky to last another month. Try not to tax him too much.”
“Has he said anything?”
Again the shake of the head. “No, nothing of significance, but you can still try; you may get something out of him.”
Francesini nodded and followed the officer out of the room. The tap of their heels echoed round the walls of the long corridor, intruding into the silence. At the far end of the corridor, the naval officer pushed opened a pair of swing doors that opened into another passage. He stopped by the first door and beckoned Francesini, opening the door for him.
The room looked clinical and efficient. Beside the bed was an array of monitoring equipment humming quietly, interrupted rhythmically by a pulsing sound from a heart monitor. The green trace on the monitor screen looked irregular and the spikes were erratic.
He paused at the bedside and looked down at the man lying on the bed. There were two bottles hanging from a stainless steel contraption with tubes branching down to the patient’s arms. He was in his thirties. Francesini knew that from the man’s notes he had read when he had arrived at the hospital. There was an oxygen bottle beside the man’s bed, but at the moment it was not in use.
Most of his hair had fallen out and what was left hung in small, wispy clumps from his scalp. One eye was closed. The other eye was open but red and angry and weeping. He had suppurating sores on his face and neck and they continued unseen down his body to the soles of his feet.
Francesini knew the man was suffering from bone calcium deficiency, leukaemia and dysentery. He felt desperately sorry for him, not because he was dying, but because of the long and painful end to the poor man’s life.
He was dying from radiation sickness.
Francesini pulled a chair over and sat beside the bed. He studied the man for a while and wondered if he would learn anything because the poor wretch looked comatose. The dying man had been picked up somewhere along the Florida Keys, wandering aimlessly along the road. The police had been called by some concerned citizen who described the man as looking like he had been in a road accident. It was true and he had been in a sorry state even then when the police picked him up. He had no identity papers on him and did not look like an American, although that in itself was not significant. So the local authorities had put him into hospital until the immigration department could deal with him.
The poor man had lain there for several days before a retired army doctor chanced by. What the doctor saw reminded him of clinical notes he had studied in his early days as a junior army doctor. The notes were comprehensive and were of Japan after the atomic bomb. And what the sharp old medic suggested to the Pentagon sent shivers down their spines and set the alarm bells ringing all the way to the White House. The sick man was immediately transferred to the isolation wing where he was now.
“I wish you would say something,” Francesini muttered. “You’re not being much help to yourself. You came to us but you won’t say why. The doctor says you could be ok, but you need something to give you hope.” It was a lie and it rolled glibly of his tongue.
The man’s eye moved and he turned his face a little. Francesini was encouraged.
“If you have a family, we can let them know. We can bring them here for you.” He leaned forward, getting closer. “It doesn’t matter where they are; we can get them.”
The man’s lips moved as he tried to form a word. Francesini watched closely as the blistered lips trembled, the blood from the sores on his mouth was still wet. Suddenly the man’s hand reached out and grabbed Francesini’s wrist and a word tumbled out. His voice was faint and cracked. It was virtually hopeless. Francesini shook his head knowing he could do nothing for him unless he knew more.
The strength in the man’s grip ebbed away and he relaxed. Francesini took hold of his hand and held it.
“How did you get the burns?” he asked, not expecting an answer. “What are they doing? What are they up to?” Francesini didn’t even know who ‘they’ were!
The frustration threatened to tip the quiet calm into boiling emotion. He wanted to wring the truth from the man and bully him into answering his questions. But he never did; he just sat there and talked softly.
He left the room after twenty minutes, discarding his protective clothing in a bin that was outside the door. He called at the reception desk to tell them that the dying man was asleep, and would they inform the doctor that he was leaving.
It was a bright, uplifting day outside the hospital and the warm sun on his face gave Francesini a reason to feel a little better as he stepped out into the sunshine. He took a cigar from his pocket. He lit the cigar and drew in a lungful of smoke.
“Taliban,” he muttered to himself. Was that the word the dying man had been trying to say, Taliban? Muslim fanatics who used to hold the reins of power in Afghanistan?
“I thought we had thrown them out,” he muttered to himself.
Then he shook his head, blew the cigar smoke out leisurely and wondered what Admiral Starling would have to say.
Marsh shivered. He felt cold, but that didn’t concern him too much; it was a warm night and the chill would soon pass. He thought about his own situation and what he could do and how he could get out of it. The irony of it did not escape him; he made his living getting wet and avoiding death. This time he wasn’t enjoying it, neither was he getting paid!
The self-indulgence passed and despair crowded in, swarming over him as he recalled the terrifying moments surrounding Walsh’s death. It was the nature of it and the following circumstances that horrified him. He wondered if he would ever get home to Freeport in the Bahamas where they lived to report everything to the police. He thought too of Helen, Walsh’s widow, and how he would tell her. In fact, what he would tell her.
Marsh had been a partner in their underwater survey business with Walsh and his widow, Helen for a good number of years. They owned a boatyard in Freeport and also their own, underwater survey vessel. Although business had been good over the years they still struggled to pay off their short term loans and the mortgage on the yard and the submersible.
He had seen the Taliba, the ship now alongside the freighter, in Freeport. It was shortly before Greg Walsh had agreed to work on a relatively short commission for its owner, Hakeem Khan.
Khan was a wealthy oceanographer and explorer. He was well known among oceanographers the world over. And he was well respected. Walsh had worked on that commission for a few months, but it had not involved Marsh or Helen. Marsh could never figure out why Walsh had excluded him. It hadn’t been a contentious issue really and in fact had given Marsh an opportunity to spend some free time on his own in Europe, taking in the old capital cities and doing some ski-ing and getting in après ski in the best traditions of a bachelor.
Shortly after completing the commission, Walsh had begun to act strangely and a little secretively. Marsh hadn’t realised it at first, but slowly it had generated some friction between himself and Walsh. It never reached the extent where they had fallen out over it, but it was a little difficult for Marsh and Helen to understand. Helen had tried to question her husband several times but had never been able to get anything from him.
But whatever it was that was troubling Walsh, it always seemed to go back to the work he had completed for Hakeem Khan. And Marsh was now rapidly piecing together some seemingly irrelevant parts of a jigsaw that worried him.
But the most important thing on Marsh’s mind at that moment was how to secure his own safety in what was now an extremely dangerous position.
His mind went back to the smaller of the two vessels, the Taliba. It was an Arabic word meaning ‘seeker of knowledge’. It had been operating in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of years now. Walsh told him it was operating on an oil exploration licence.
He looked up at the colossus that was the freighter, then at the Taliba. Of the two ships, he knew that the smaller craft was his only hope.
He had swum to the stern end of the Taliba and had been there for some minutes going through the useless exercise of trying to figure out exactly what the ship was doing there in the first place. He cursed himself and brought his mind back to how he was going to make best use of the opportunity that had presented itself.
Marsh knew that clambering aboard the boat would not be difficult because the crew of the Taliba all had their attention focussed on the freighter and what was apparently the preparation to transfer cargo. It was only Marsh’s weakened state that might jeopardise his attempt to climb up on to the aft deck of the Taliba.
He kicked with his legs, ignoring the pain from the bullet wound and reached up for the diving platform which had been hoisted into its stowage position. His fingers touched the framework and he grabbed and held on. Then he slowly pulled himself clear of the water. He felt a little rush of adrenalin and a sense of euphoria swept over him on this initial success, but he knew his chances of survival were still slim. He had to be careful.
Once he was on the aft deck, he lay prone and remained perfectly still. He lay like that for several minutes and allowed his pulse rate to settle, taking advantage of the brief respite he had been given.
As he lay there, Marsh could hear rather than see, the work going on at the forward end of the Taliba. It was also clear that the hatch covers were being hoisted clear on the forward deck of the freighter. Although neither ship was carrying lights, which of course was illegal, Marsh could see the flicker of torchlight on the deck of the freighter and could just about make out silhouettes of men on the wings of both ships. He could hear the gentle motion of the screws as both ships kept station.
Suddenly the winch motor on the freighter burst into life and within moments a large crate appeared as it was swung from the hatch of the freighter to the forward deck of the Taliba.
A breeze suddenly sprung up and ran like a lizard across his back. He shivered and began to cast around for somewhere to conceal himself. He needed to do it quickly while both crews were engaged in the transfer of whatever cargo it was. And the noise of the transfer was loud enough to mask any noise that Marsh made while he cast around looking for a bolt hole.
And before he went looking for that bolt hole, Marsh thought about Hakeem Khan again. Khan was a respected member of that breed of oceanographers who work in the oceans of the world, and who were never happier than when they were doing just that.
So what the hell was Khan doing here?
Hakeem Khan watched the loading dispassionately from the bridge of the Taliba. If he was nervous, he did not appear so. He stood with his legs apart and his hands locked together behind his back. He stared out of the windows of the bridge through dark eyes beneath a heavy frown. He was quite bulky, but none of it was fat because of his lifestyle at sea. Despite his apparent fitness however, Khan was not a well man.
He was there on the bridge because he was not disposed to letting his captain oversee the operation. Nevertheless he managed to display a detached interest. His head moved in a spontaneous nod of satisfaction as the sling, now divested of its burden, moved upwards like the long tails of a firefly. His eyes followed them until they disappeared into the darkness above the freighter. He then turned to a huge man standing beside him.
“We are in Allah’s hands now, Malik,” he said quietly.
Malik nodded his huge head. “May He be praised.”
There were two other men on the bridge with Khan and Malik: the ship’s captain, Jose Maria de Leon who was a Cuban, and the duty wheelman. Khan spoke to the captain.
“It is done. Lock it away Señor de Leon. I will be in my cabin.”
De Leon moved towards the bridge telephone but before he could pick it up, the wireless operator called through from the wireless room.
De Leon and Khan exchanged glances. De Leon stepped through into the wireless room. A few moments later he called through to Khan.
“You had better take this, sir. They have a problem.”
Khan frowned and walked into the wireless room. The captain handed him the headset which he pressed to his ear. De Leon watched intently.
“When was this?” Khan asked sharply. “And you have the body on board?”
He lifted his face upwards and shook his head in despair.
“And he has papers on him?” He listened. “His name?”
The others watched Khan as his face froze.
“Mother of God.” He looked at de Leon. “Get the cage ready.”
He threw the headset on to the radio table. “Tell them to stand by,” he ordered the wireless operator. “I’m going on board.” He turned to Malik. “You too.”
There was just a hint of dawn breaking on the far horizon as Marsh thought he could see movement on the bridge of the Taliba. Two figures moved hurriedly down the stairway from the bridge to the lower deck. Beyond them he saw the cage being hooked up to the derrick crane. It was a shark cage, used to allow divers to study shark behaviour in safety. The two figures stepped inside the cage and it was lifted up and swung across to the deck of the freighter. One of them looked like Khan. He didn’t recognise the second figure in the cage.
Marsh assumed this was part of the illegal business that was being conducted. Perhaps Khan was going over to the freighter to pay for whatever contraband had been delivered; for Marsh was convinced it had to be contraband of one kind or another. As the cage disappeared from Marsh’s view he pushed the thought from his mind and began to consider his own position and what he could do.
On the deck of the freighter, Khan stood over the dead body of Greg Walsh. Water still dripped from Walsh’s body, forming small, red pools on the deck of the freighter. He had been laid on his back, and in the torchlight could be clearly seen small blossoms of flowering red on his clothing. Khan stared at it.
“There was no-one else?” he asked at length.
The captain of the freighter glanced up. “No.”
Khan’s eyes just flickered towards him; then they were back on the pale, dead face.
“Why?” he muttered softly to himself. “Why were you here?”
Malik heard the whisper and sensed the urgent query in his Khan’s voice.
“Coincidence?” he offered. “A chance in a thousand?”
Khan looked at him. “We would like to think so, wouldn’t we Malik? But I fear that is not the case.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Throw him back into the sea and let his secrets go with him. The sharks will not go hungry.”
He stared at Walsh’s dead face for a little longer. Then he knelt down and placed the tip of his finger on Walsh’s chin.
“Why were you here Walsh? Why?”
He stood up and walked back to the cage in silence. Malik followed.
As they swung back over to the Taliba, Khan’s face was fused into a deep scowl. A small pain nagged at his chest; the familiar pain that the doctor’s had warned him about. He lifted his hand and massaged his chest.
A single doubt now lay in his mind. For the first time in many weeks it occurred to him that others might know.
Marsh had been transfixed by the comings and goings between the two ships, but now he knew he had little time; he had to find somewhere to conceal himself. Khan was unlikely to be on the freighter too long completing whatever business it was he was conducting; the ships would have move on soon. Certainly once Khan was back on board.
There were two lifeboats secured on their davits, one either side of the ship. Choosing the lifeboat furthest away from the freighter, and away from the direction most eyes might look, Marsh ran at a crouch towards the boat. He climbed up on to the steelwork of the davits and slipped beneath the tarpaulin covering the boat.
The darkness closed in on him as he settled down in the bottom of the lifeboat. He had no plan and didn’t know what he was going to do. He certainly had no hope of rescue. Whatever happened now would be in the hands of God.
Or in the hands of Hakeem Khan!