‘High-tech’ would be an understatement. Think Star Trek meets ‘Hunt for Red October.’ We were escorted through the bridge to a large control desk, where we stood and waited to be acknowledged. There were at least 5 consoles being manned by crewmen and crew women, all oblivious to our presence. Eventually the officer looked up.
“You the cruise ship guys?” the somewhat older gentleman snarled. His silver crew cut made him look more like a retired Marine than a sailor. “One of you ‘Ruger’?”
“That’s me,” I answered. “How did you know?”
“That damned recording you idiots broadcast. Did you think we would just call you like a love-sick schoolgirl?”
I felt a bit defensive. “I wouldn’t have had to do that if you hadn’t gone silent. How should we have gotten word to you?”
“You didn’t need to. You could have just stayed put and let us do our job.”
“Captain,” Jimmy interrupted gruffly. “I’m Detective Stewart from the Denver Police Department. My wife is on that cruise, and we have kids at home. We had to do something. We had just been harassed at gunpoint by a bunch of thugs and then we were in the middle of your stand-off …”
“Okay, okay, I get it. I’m Captain Higgs and this is my boat.” He waved his hand around in the air. “What do you need from me?”
“Well, for one thing,” I replied, “We wanted you to know what’s going on. We’ve made a deal with the Venezuelans.”
“Because they wanted to deal.” I stepped to the center of the large center window and looked out. “And we had something they would take. We’re going to give it to them and watch them leave.”
“You think they’re going to go away quietly?”
“Yes, they have no reason not to.”
“Think about it, Son. They have leverage, even with us here. I know these sons of bitches. If there’s still money to wrangle out of you, that’s what they’re going to do.”
I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. I turned to face the Captain. “What do you suggest?”
“Let us handle it. We can board their ship in seconds and disable their weapons.”
Jimmy spoke up. “And if you struggle with the op? Won’t they fire at the cruise ship?”
“We won’t struggle. We do this for a living.”
“No, thanks. That’s not a risk worth taking.”
I thought for a minute. “Captain, what was the reason for your radio silence?”
“We had a breach of communication.”
“Someone here was communicating illicitly?”
“Yes, sir, that’s exactly what happened. We discovered the signal and traced it to its source. One of our comm specialists was transmitting rogue. He’s in the brig.”
I thought about the situation, about T.J., about Mike, the pirates, the Navy ship, and something hit me. “Captain, have you found out who he was communicating with?”
“We assume with an enemy combatant of some kind. It was a sat phone, no memory, so it could have been anyone.”
“What if we could get that answer for you? What would that be worth to you?”
He seemed to consider the offer. Finally, he asked, “What would you want?”
“If we get to the bottom of it, you back our play. You can be ready to come aboard the Venezuelan ship if things go bad, but you let us make the payoff.”
“How will you ‘get to the bottom of it’?”
“Relax,” Jimmy said, smiling. “We do this for a living.”
“Deal. X.O., please escort these gentlemen to the security room and bring the prisoner to them to interrogate.”
“Aye, Captain,” Roberts answered.
“Record the interview.”
“Aye, Captain. Gentlemen, this way, please.”
We quietly followed Roberts out of the bridge on down about 4 steep sets of stairs. I might have even called them ‘ladders.’ We ducked through a hatch and followed a corridor aft for nearly the length of the ship. She punched in a code at an entry lock and the door popped inward. We followed her in and she motioned to a 10-foot-long table with four heavy chairs sitting nearby. We pulled 3 of the chairs up around the table and sat.
“Just like home,” Jimmy commented. “They’ll be sitting behind that mirror …” His head motioned to the large mirror behind us.
Other than the table and chairs, the room was mostly empty. It had very pale green walls covered in what looked like dozens of coats of paint. The lighting was bright, recessed in the ceiling, and there was an old loudspeaker hanging in the corner. I looked for a web-cam and microphones but didn’t find them.
The door opened again and a crewman was ushered in by a couple of large M.P.’s. He sat down in the remaining chair and the M.P.’s left and locked the door.
“Who are you guys?”
The prisoner didn’t really look like one. He was in a clean but disheveled white uniform, minus any accoutrements. His accent was Virginian, or West Virginian, southeastern, in any case.
I replied, “We’re the guys that are going to save your life.”
“My life? What do you mean?”
“Murder with exigent circumstances. That’s the death penalty, isn’t it, Jimmy?”
“It sure is …”
“Murder? I didn’t murder anyone.”
I couldn’t begin to count how many times we got a confession in this manner. In my prime, we didn’t even need the facts.
“Oh, but you did,” I continued. “You committed a felony that not only resulted in two of your partners being shot and killed, but over 2,000 innocent passengers on a pleasure cruise being held at gunpoint, robbed and, in some cases, injured. And all that in international waters where the American justice system can’t protect you. Pity …”
“What? Who was killed?”
“Mr. Joyce … you might know him as T.J., and Mike Perkins, one of the cruise ship’s officers. Both shot by the same thugs who terrorized the ship.”
“I … I don’t know them. I want my lawyer.”
I turned my chair toward Jimmy and I addressed him as if ignoring the perp. “You know what’s interesting?”
“Well, a couple of things …” he answered. “First,” Jimmy turned back to the other guy. “What’s your name again?”
“Smithee, Seaman Gerald Smithee.”
“Gerry …” He turned back to me. “Gerry, here, is in serious, serious trouble and he doesn’t even know it. Two of his partners have been killed and he never even thought about his own mortality.”
“You’re right. You know what else? He doesn’t get a lawyer.”
“I’m an American and in the Navy,” Smithee stated, standing up. “I damn well DO get a lawyer.” He slammed his hand on the table.
Jimmy grabbed his hand and placed it quickly in our favorite hold, the hand tuck. We had both learned the hand tuck in the academy and thugs always seemed to be caught by surprise when we employed it. We had each performed the maneuver hundreds of times.
With one hand, Jimmy lifted Smithee’s hand up and he yelped in pain.
“Okay! Okay! I give! I give!”
I’m sure Jimmy was enjoying himself, but he released his grip anyway and Smithee fell back into the chair.
Jimmy and I sat back down and continued. “As we were saying, you DON’T get a lawyer and I’ll tell you why.”
Smithee stayed seated, still in pain and still rubbing his wrist.
“Do you know what they call holding up a passenger ship with automatic weapons and threatening other acts violence?” He waited for a moment to let the question sink in. “That’s right, I think you know.”
“Terrorism,” he said, getting our point.
“Terrorism. Can you say Guantanamo Bay?”
“No way. I’m not going down for murder. And I’m not a terrorist. I’m not!”
“Well, we don’t have any jurisdiction here, but your Naval code of ethics compels you to tell the truth. In return for your honesty and cooperation, the Navy will take the death penalty off the table.”
Smithee sat silent, looking down at the table. They always did when thinking about the extreme consequences.
“Let me tell you one thing, Gerry,” I said in a fatherly tone. He looked up at me. “Mike confessed before he died. We already know everything. Luckily for you, we need corroboration.”
“You know,” Jimmy interrupted. “We might not need it, really. He made a dying declaration. That holds a lot of weight …”
“You’re right,” I agreed, standing up. I knocked on the window and yelled, “We’re done here!”
Jimmy stood and said, “Sorry, kid. We tried to help.”
We took a couple of steps toward the door and it popped open.
We stopped and Jimmy winked at me before we turned around.
We didn’t sit right back down but stood at the door to wait him out. Smithee was still struggling with it, so we turned again to the door.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Roberts joined us and sat down in my chair. I remained standing, allowing Jimmy to close the deal.
“Go for it,” Jimmy prodded.
“Mike’s uncle knows my cousin. They’d been looking for a backup plan in case …”
“In case of what?”
“In case things went sideways. Mike’s uncle knew about me from my cousin, Marty, and they knew we were the only Navy ship in the area. They paid him 50 grand to get me to contact Mike if we were going to show up.” He paused.
“Go on,” Roberts instructed.
“I told them no, but my cousin already spent the money — gambling, I think. They were holding him somewhere and told me they’d kill him if I didn’t go along. I didn’t have any choice.”
“You could have told somebody.”
“Marty and I, we’re close. I couldn’t risk it. They would’ve killed him, I knew it.”
“How did you know it?”
“Because the uncle killed a drug dealer once.”
“So, what happened?” I thought I knew the answer.
“When I heard the call come in about the cruise ship, I radioed Mike as we agreed. He had a receiver and they had told me which frequency to broadcast on. About an hour later, M.P.’s had me in handcuffs.”
“So where’s your cousin now?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You think they let him go?”
“I can find out.”
Roberts slapped a notepad and pen down on the table. “Write down his name and address, and anything else that would help find him.”
We waited a couple of minutes for him to finish and then left him in the room.
Jimmy was smiling. “That felt good. How’d you know Mike was working with him?”
“It came to me when we were towing them over.” I turned to address Roberts. “We have a deal, right?”
“That’s up to the Captain.”
“Then let’s go see him. But first, let me write down a number for you.” She handed me the pad and pen and I jotted down Amanda’s name and number. “Give my friend a call at the F.B.I. Let her know what’s going on and let her try to locate Smithee’s cousin.”
“That’s reasonable,” Roberts said as she took back the paper. “I’ll call her as soon as we get done here.”
We followed her back to the bridge. “Sir,” she addressed Higgs. “They got the confession. Smithee was working with the victims they brought over.”
“Did they, now? I hear the one in surgery’s going to make it. That should help the case.”
“Sir,” I said. “We upheld our end ...”
“And I intend to honor our agreement. What can we do for you?”
“Well, we could use three sat phones.”
Higgs nodded to Roberts, who walked to a cabinet near the floor and grabbed the phones. As she handed them to me, she asked, “Do you know how these work.”
“Yes, thanks. This button here is power, this one is talk and end call. Pretty much like a cell phone.”
“They don’t work well below deck …”
“But,” I added, “they work better than cell phones out here.”
“To call us on any of these, just hold down the nine key. It’ll speed-dial us here.”
“One more thing, can we borrow a couple of Kevlar vests?”
“We can pick them up on the way to your boat.”
Jimmy leaned over and quietly reminded, “We have to get back. The Venezuelans will be calling.”
“I agree. Captain Higgs, thanks for your hospitality. We better be leaving.”
Again, Higgs nodded to Roberts. “Just one thing, if I can make a suggestion.”
“Have the cruise ship move over behind us when you have them busy with your payoff. We can protect them better there.”
“That’s a good idea, Captain. We’ll be in touch.”