“You know what to do?”
Marcial looked at me incredulously. “Sure, Mister Ruger. I just shoot everyone except the Gringo.” He smiled.
The tray of colorful shot glasses sat around a serving tray on the long kitchen island. All but the green one had been spiked.
“Much as we’d like you to do that,” I replied, “I think serving them shots would be safer that actually shooting them.”
Jimmy added, “But you gotta sell it. Make ’em want the shots.”
“I know, Señior. And the white guy gets the green one. Don’t worry, they’ll drink them.”
Marcial picked up the tray and expertly balanced it on one hand, then showed off by twirling it around and under his elbow.
“Careful!” I nearly panicked. “We don’t have any more of that!”
Marcial just smiled and disappeared through the curtain leading to the dining room. The 3 of us got ready and peeked from around the corner.
“Gentlemen!” We could hear Marcial’s pitch. “On the house!”
We could hear some excitement at first, then we heard T.J. say, somewhat firmly, “No, no drinking until the job’s done.”
“It’s the best we have,” Marcial countered. “It’s only a couple of ounces, not even full shots.”
“No, thanks,” T.J. said. “We’re working.”
“Sixteen hundred dollars a bottle …”
They went back and forth, but the pirates eventually insisted and the shots went down.
“Wait,” Fosse cautioned. “It’ll take 2 or 3 minutes.”
“What’s wrong?” we heard T.J. ask and knew it was time. The 3 of us rushed out and with little difficulty we overpowered the thugs.
T.J. was left standing alone with his gun raised, but with three pointed at him. He sighed and flipped the pistol over, handing it to Fosse. “If you wanted your money back,” he said, “you just had to ask.”
“Wish I’d known that,” Jimmy answered. “We wouldn’t have gone to this much trouble.”
As instructed, Fosse pulled out the handcuff ties he had brought and put them on T.J. first, then each of the others. Once cuffed, Jimmy and Fosse grabbed each one and dragged them into the walk-in refrigerator while I held my Beretta on T.J.
We escorted our captive through the maze of crew corridors back to the security office and sat him down hard on an office chair.
“This is security?” T.J. asked. “I thought the other room …”
“I know.” Jimmy and I both smiled.
“I’m going to check on our other guests,” I said and Jimmy moved to stand close to T.J. I started with Junior.
“It’s about time,” he said as he left the room and headed for the bathroom. He stopped when he saw T.J. “Is this one of the pirates?”
“Something like that …”
“Aarrgh!” Junior growled, then he laughed at his own humor.
I joined him in the restroom and waited for him to relieve himself, then escorted him back to the room. The ritual of punching in the door code and waiting for it to close was getting old.
I repeated the process with Daniels. This time he was anxious to use the facilities.
“I almost pissed in the corner …”
“You should have gone before.”
“Yes, dad,” he said as he rushed by me. I followed him into the bathroom and, after a few minutes, back out again.
I locked Daniels back in his room and focused on T.J.
“So,” I said as I moved another chair and sat down in front of him. “I hear you’re a pirate.”
“Hey, money talks,” the geek replied in his still annoying squeak.
Jimmy slammed his fist on the nearby desk, startling the 3 of us. “Someone’s gonna get killed! Does that talk, too?”
T.J. sat and didn’t answer. He pulled his arms up to wipe sweat from his forehead with a forearm. His dark brown hair was stringy and now wringing wet.
“Did they pay you, or are you paying them?” Jimmy asked forcefully. “Who’s in charge?”
“I assure you, I am an innocent bystander who is trying to take advantage of a situation.” T.J. paused. “Got any water?”
Fosse rifled through a cabinet and came up with a small bottle. He slid it across the table to him. “Not cold, sorry.”
“No problem, it’s just so damn hot in here.”
“It doesn’t add up,” Jimmy continued. “These guys aren’t prepared for an operation like this. They don’t have enough people or boats … they don’t even have walkie-talkies.”
“There’s definitely more to this,” I added. “What’s the angle?”
“No angle, just thieves.”
“I don’t buy it,” Jimmy replied. He was obviously upset, but it made for a good “bad cop.” He also grabbed a chair and came close. “Listen, asshole, we only have so much time.”
“What do you mean?”
“You think you have an unlimited time frame to get all that loot off the ship and disappear? You don’t think 3 governments haven’t sent their navies to see what happened to us? What’s going to happen when they show up? How many people are going to get killed in the gunfire?”
T.J. sat silent and briefly smiled. Jimmy stood up and grabbed him, punching him squarely in the face. I held Jimmy back while Fosse helped T.J. back onto the chair.
“That’s enough!” I yelled at Jimmy, who winked at me and motioned for Fosse to meet him at the door.
I sat back down with our guest and, after Jimmy whispered something to him, Fosse rushed out of the room. Jimmy stayed at the door, waiting with his arms crossed.
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind, but I decided to try to make small talk to put T.J. off his guard. I was the good cop.
“I’m sorry, T.J. Sometimes my old partner gets emotional.” I reached over to help straighten his shirt and dust off his pant legs.
“You guys are cops; you can’t do that.”
“Well, technically, we aren’t. I’m retired, so I’m not a cop at all. And Jimmy … well, he doesn’t have any jurisdiction. He’s just a U.S. citizen providing some assistance to the captain.”
I softened my approach. “Let’s start with your name … What does ‘T.J.’ stand for? ‘Thomas John’? ‘Theo Jackson’?”
“Not even close,” he answered reluctantly. “It’s ’Terence Joyce.” I never liked ‘Terry’ and ‘Joyce’ is a horrible last name, especially growing up.”
“I’ll bet,” Jimmy smirked from the door.
I ignored him. “You seem to have enough money all on your own,” I surmised, continuing in a more pleasant tone. “Your suite set you back 30K … I assumed you were a tech industry entrepreneur.”
“Something like that.” He was relaxing.
“So why the big robbery? Seems like a big risk for someone already loaded.”
“Maybe I was bored. This is a rush.”
A knock on the door interrupted us and Jimmy let Fosse in, who was carrying some wrapped meat and a roll of duct tape.
“Bring him,” Jimmy directed at me. “I want to show you something.”
I stood up and lifted T.J. to his feet by his arm. You could see the red spot on his face from Jimmy’s punch. I pushed him gently forward and we fell in line behind the other two, out the door, to the left, aft down the corridor and into the crew’s stairwell. We climbed up 3 flights and reached the entry plank and guard rail about 10 feet above the somewhat calm ocean.
“What should I see?” the geek entrepreneur asked nervously.
“You’ll see in a minute,” Jimmy answered. T.J.’s hands were still bound and he could give little resistance when Jimmy unwrapped the largest piece of meat, a prime rib, and began to duct-tape it to T.J.’s chest. He wrapped the tape around the captive’s body several times, and T.J. became more agitated with each circle Jimmy made around him.
“What … what are you doing?” he asked with panic now in his voice.
“You’ll see.” Jimmy finished wrapping the meat onto T.J. and pulled him over to the rail. “Now watch.”
He grabbed a life jacket from a nearby holding tank and taped one of the meat packages to it. Then he threw it overboard. We watched while it floated on the water, rising and lowering with the light swells.
When nothing happened, Jimmy grabbed another life vest and repeated the exercise. After a couple of minutes, about three gray and white sharks swam by and circled back. The largest of the 3, about 10 feet long, grabbed the first meat package on his fourth swim-by and they were gone. Then the other two seemed to fight over the meat left behind, a flurry of violent splashing making way to an eerie silence.
I watched T.J.’s face turn white and Jimmy had to hold him up. “This … you …”
“I’m going to ask you again,” Jimmy said in a stern tone. “What are you doing here? What is really the plan?”
When there was no answer, Jimmy forced him up to and partially over the rail.
Jimmy let him back off the rail.
“You guys are cops, or were cops. You can’t kill me like this.”
“Wanna bet?” Jimmy answered. “My wife is on this cruise. She could get hurt, or worse.”
“Besides,” I added. “No one’s ever gonna know. There’ll be no evidence, no body and a gang of pirates to blame for your disappearance.”
Jimmy forced him up on the rail again.
Jimmy again relaxed his grip and T.J. stepped back from the edge.
“Last chance,” I said. “What’s the real plan?”
“First, let me tell you it’s not my fault.”
“This whole thing. You’re right, it’s not about the passengers’ loot. That’s a smoke screen.”
“What’s it about then?”
“Compression … and corporate espionage.”
“Compression?” Jimmy asked. “Like a compression fracture?”
“No, computer files.”
“Go on.” I was getting worried about us all being out on deck, even though we were somewhat sheltered from view.
“I own a company that does corporate communications.”
“Yes, but lots more than that. Files can be huge and slow to transfer, and also difficult to secure.”
“We spent 10 million on a process to compress files better, shrink them down. Only we couldn’t get it to work. One of our clients was the Qatari government.”
“In the Middle East?” Jimmy interjected.
“Yes, it’s a very wealthy country. When we gave them the news, they told us that another company had not only succeeded in the 92 percent compression rate, but included a 2048 bit encryption.”
“You’re losing me,” I said. “You mean they could shrink the files and secure them, too?”
“Yes, exactly. Qatar tried to have one of their corporations buy that company, but they wouldn’t sell. So they came back to us and said to find an insider to sell us the algorithm ... the formula.”
“So you bribed someone to give you their secret sauce and then set up all of this for the swap?” Jimmy seemed to have it figured out.
“Well, yes, to make a long story short.”
“But, why all this?” I asked, perplexed. “People might be killed.”
“I didn’t want to, but we tried 3 times to make the connection and each time we were followed, both literally and electronically. This way, there’s no Internet, no cell phones, no communication, and any losses can be blamed on the hijackers.”
“So what’re you swapping, exactly?”
“I have about $50 million in diamonds in my suite and we’re picking up a laptop with an EEPROM, a programmable chip that can’t be erased without special hardware, sitting inside it.”
Jimmy asked, “The hijackers don’t know about this, do they?”
He shook his head.
“Have you made the swap?” I asked.
“Not yet, I was about to when you interrupted us.”
“So who’s the spy?”
“It’s a couple, actually. Bill and Leslie James …”
Jimmy was startled. “You know them?”
“Sort of,” I answered. “I met them when I was searching for Junior. They had another gal traveling with them …” I tried to remember the large-breasted woman’s name.
“Pamela,” T.J. reminded. “She has … attributes,” he smiled. “But she’s not part of this. I guess they wanted a cover, or just to have fun on this trip, but they brought her on-board with them.”
Fosse spoke up. “Let’s get back to security before someone finds us here.”
“Excellent idea,” I answered.
I motioned for Jimmy to take the meat jacket off T.J., which he did and threw the prime rib over the rail. Then we started back.
“You know,” Jimmy began while we were heading down the first flight of stairs. “It still doesn’t …”
A deafening burst of gunfire stopped us in our tracks. This wasn’t small gun or automatic rifle fire. This sounded like cannons. Instinct kicked in and we all hit the deck.
I ran back up the stairs and popped my head out in time to see 5 small naval ships a few hundred yards away. I recognized the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag, complete with an arc of stars in the middle of the center horizontal, royal blue stripe. I’m not sure why that particular flag stuck with me all these years. I don’t know anyone from Venezuela.
I crept back down the stairwell and found the others had left, gone to security, I assumed. Another “boom” and I hurried to join them.
Closing the door behind me, I rushed to the surveillance desk where Jimmy was standing, trying to simultaneously hold a gun on T.J. and watch Fosse search through the camera views. I relieved them of watching T.J. and Jimmy replaced Fosse in the chair.
“That’s odd,” Jimmy said. “I found an angle that shows the front ship and most of the men on deck don’t have uniforms. This is a navy ship, probably from …” He paused.
“Venezuela,” I filled in the blank. “I recognized the flag.”
“I was going to say ‘Colombia,’ but Venezuela makes sense.” Jimmy frowned. “This isn’t good.”
“What is it?” Fosse sounded nervous.
“Guns. A lot of guns. They’re going to board.”
“We need to …”
A great deal of gunfire interrupted my thought. This was machine gun fire, and I could hear shouts in Spanish and broken English between the bursts.
“Erin,” Jimmy said. “I’m going to find Erin.”
“Go!” I shouted. “Get her to stay in her cabin and keep your cool.”
Jimmy peeked out of the door, then disappeared into the corridor, the hatch closing behind him.
Knocking on the doors reminded me that we had guests. I decided to let them out and Fosse and I unlocked both the doors. An eternity later, they opened and Junior and Cesaro cautiously exited their rooms.
“What’s going on?” Junior asked.
“Well, we’re in a bit of a pickle.”
More gunfire, this time closer.
“Pirates?” Cesaro seemed anxious for a killer.
“Worse than pirates?”
“It appears that a cartel has control of a few Venezuelan naval vessels and is making its way to this room.”
Gunfire even closer.
“You’re right,” Cesaro answered. “That IS worse.” He walked back in his room. “Lock this room back up and don’t let on I’m in here.” He looked me in the eye. “Please.”
I started the door sequence, but before it could edge closed, the main security door burst open and about 10 guys with machine guns rushed in. All our hands went up and, thankfully, no one pulled a trigger.
Jimmy was thrown by someone from the doorway to the center of the floor in front of us. “I’m okay …”