The docking station on the South American ship was nearly at water level, with just 3 steps to climb to board her. Jimmy went first, then I stepped up. Surprisingly, no one searched us for weapons. I suspected it was either poor training or overconfidence. What were we going to do with all those armed sailors nearby?
The welcoming committee of about 10 men escorted us to the bridge and we were in the company of Capitan de Navio Andres Rafael Blanco.
“Gentlemen!” Blanco joyfully greeted us. “Please, you have the payment?”
I held out the bag. “Twenty-five-million in Canary Island diamonds.”
One of the officers took the bag from me and opened it up. He looked at Blanco, who nodded. He took a few stones out and held them up, one at a time, then moved the whole bag to a desk off to one side. Quietly, he opened a cabinet door nearby, pulled out a plastic bin and propped it next to the bag.
I recognized some of the testing paraphernalia from the jewelry store. He went through most of the same gyrations Miss Carlson went through, testing about a half-dozen genuine diamonds, each time writing figures down in a notepad. When he seemed to be finished testing, he threw the bag on a scale and pulled over a calculator. We waited for the approval that we knew would come, and finally the officer threw the stones back in the bag and nodded back to the captain. “Veinte seis millones cuatrocientos mil.”
Jimmy spoke up. “Sir, may we go now? You have your payment.”
“I’m afraid there is a misunderstanding,” Blanco replied. “I asked for 35 million and you only brought us 26. Pity.”
“No,” I argued. “I promised 25 million and I brought you 26.”
“Regardless, you’ll be staying with us a while.”
He motioned to one of the guards nearby, who then stepped toward us. I stepped back, unzipping my jacket and allowing some of my faux-explosives to show. The guard’s face went white.
I held up the walkie-talkie and acted like it was a dead man’s switch. “Tengo … um … tengo una bomba!”
A few of the crew fled the bridge and the rest froze.
“Captain, I think you should reconsider,” I said calmly. “If I let go, this thing’s going to make a mess.”
“And you would blow yourself up, is that what I am to believe?”
“He’ll do it,” Jimmy added. “My wife and his girlfriend are on board the cruise ship. We’ll do anything to keep them safe.”
After a moment of silence, I decided we should make a move and we stepped backward towards the door.
“Señor Ruger, I don’t think so.”
He let out a belly laugh and I figured out he didn’t buy it. But I needed more time. I held up the walkie-talkie even more forcefully. “Captain, don’t make me blow this thing!”
“The farce is over …”
“Capitan! El crucero está moviendo!” The guard pointed toward the cruise ship, which was halfway to the Navy ship.
Jimmy took the distraction to grab a sidearm from one of the guards behind us and I followed with another. We both pointed our weapons at Blanco’s head.
“If you shoot,” he said, “you wouldn’t last 10 seconds. Half a dozen of my men would shoot you where you stand.” He looked back at the cruise ship. “Besides, you got what you wanted. Well played.”
About 10 more guards entered the bridge, each with automatic rifles, and each pointing at us.
“The jig is up, Patty boy.” Jimmy held up his gun, hanging it on one finger by the trigger guard. After noticing that the cruise ship was well behind the Naperville, I did the same. The armed men took the weapons from us, stripped me of my “bomb,” the walkie-talkies and the satellite phone, took our yellow jackets and led us away.
There were guards ahead of us and behind us, and the ones behind were not shy about shoving us forward with their rifle barrels, throwing around what were probably nasty epithets along the way. I assumed Venezuelans spoke Spanish — at least that’s what it sounded like. I don’t know much Spanish, but I’ve learned a few words since I met Lola. Not enough, though, to negotiate with these thugs.
Three or four levels down and about mid-ship, we apparently arrived, because we were stopped and placed facing the corridor wall. I heard the clang of a metal door opening and we were thrown in a room and the door shut loudly behind us.
The door had about a two by two-and-a-half foot window with vertical metal bars placed closely together. From the inside, I noticed, there was no lock to pick. I looked around the room, which was bare of furniture, or anything else — just 4 bare gray walls, a hard metal floor and an 8 foot solid ceiling.
“Nice accommodations, I see,” Jimmy said snidely. “My back is gonna hurt.”
“Don’t be a baby,” I replied. “Try it when you’re my age.”
“I told you your ‘bomb’ was dumb …”
“You never said that …”
“Well, I thought it loudly.”
“But it did give Haagensen a few minutes to get his ship to safety.”
“Yeah, I’m grateful for that.” He tried looking down the hall through the window bars. “How’re we going to get out of here?”
“Not exactly sure … yet. Any ideas?”
“Nope. What do you think they’ve got in mind?”
“Just more ransom, I’m sure. Since they don’t have a clear shot at the cruise ship, we’re all they have to bargain with.”
“Won’t more U.S. ships show up?”
“Yeah, but that probably won’t help us. Blanco will threaten to kill us before anyone can board. But that’s also good news.”
“Good news? Oh, you mean he won’t kill his leverage?”
“This is a situation we’ve never been in before … and we’ve been through a lot.”
“Well,” I said, after pondering the thought. “We won’t be able to say that again, will we?” We both smiled.
I went to the door and yelled, “Agua! Por favor! Agua!” I waited and yelled again, ”Por favor! Agua!”
“Esperar!” someone yelled back from down the hall. A few minutes later a younger sailor showed up and handed us each a cup of water through the bars.
“Speak English?” I asked before he left.
“No, no hablar.”
The Venezuelan was gone and it was quiet. A few minutes later, another couple of sailors wandered by.
“English?” I asked again. “We have something for you …”
They kept going without acknowledging us. This was repeated a half-dozen times before I gave up and sat down on the hard floor.
A rumbling came from below the floor and the ship lurched a few inches.
“What?” Jimmy asked with some concern.
“I think we’re moving.”
“Moving? As in ‘leaving’?”
“That’s what it sounds like.”
Jimmy echoed my sentiment. “Damn.” He sat down across from me.
A while later, the door was unlocked and we quickly got to our feet. I realized then that it was getting dark outside and wondered where the time went. The lead guard had a couple of plates of food while two others had rifles pointed into the room.
We each took a plate from the guard. “English?” I tried again. “Do you speak English?”
“Si, I speak Inglés.”
I pointed at the others. “Them?”
“No, they don’t speak it. What do you want?”
“I want to make you rich.”
His eyes lit up. “You have money?”
“Better. But let’s talk later when we’re alone.”
He left with the armed guards and we sat back down to eat. The plates each had three small fish-stuffed empanadas, very tasty, at least mine were, and no utensils were necessary.
“Don’t they have beef in Venezuela?” Jimmy sounded disgusted. “I swear, I can only get fish in South America.”
“You’ve been in South America before?”
“Twice,” he answered. “I went to a seminar in Peru about international investigative methods, and Erin and I went to Carnival in Rio a few years back. I couldn’t get a steak or a hamburger in either place.”
“You guys went to Carnival?”
“Yeah, sort of a second honeymoon. It was fantastic, beautiful. It was … Rio.”
“They have cattle in Brazil …”
“Well, maybe it was out of season, but I couldn’t seem to order it anywhere.”
“Well, this …” I held up the last empanada. “This is really good.”
We finished up and laid back. It was going to be a long night on this floor. I put my hands behind my head to cushion it from this hard surface. It didn’t take long for my back to hurt across my hips. Jimmy didn’t follow — he stayed seated with his back against the wall.
What seemed like a couple of hours later, the door was unlocked and two thin mattresses were thrown in, along with a couple of bottles of water. Without saying a word, the door closed and was locked. I stood and started to rush the door before it closed, but it was too late.
We were glad to have the mattresses to sleep on, far better than the steel floor. The next morning, we were awakened by a crowd of noisy sailors walking by. Eventually, one reached through the window and dropped a couple of bags of food — burritos, it turned out — into the room along with some more water. They never opened the door.
We never saw or heard anyone in the hallway for many hours. Sometime in the early evening, more food was delivered, more empanadas this time.
“Bathroom!” I yelled. The Venezuelan sailor just laughed. “Baños!” I repeated.
“Good thing we have the empty bottles to piss in,” Jimmy smirked. “I’d hate to mess up these nice accommodations.”
We ate up and I used another bottle. I went to the window and threw the bottle of yellow liquid down the hallway, somewhat breaking the tension. We both laughed.
Later that evening, the English-speaking guard returned, speaking to us through the window. Jimmy and I stood up and moved to the door.
“So you gringos have something better than money?”
“Yes, I think I do.” I reached in my jeans pocket and pulled out one of the cubic zirconia stones and held it up. “This is worth about a hundred-thousand U.S. dollars.”
“Let me see that.” He reached out his hand and tried to grab it.
“Not so fast … what’s your name?”
“Diego, I don’t think I’m going to hand you this diamond. I don’t think I would see you again.”
Diego unlocked and opened the door. He had a pistol. “Give me the diamond.”
I quickly put it in my mouth. “You want me to swallow it? You won’t ever see it again if I do.”
Diego uncocked his gun and stepped back. “Okay, okay! What do you want me to do?”
I spoke with the cubic still in my mouth. “We need a small boat or raft, some food and water, and my sat phone. Get it all ready and lead us to it. Then I’ll give you the diamond.”
“Si, si, I’ll get them ready.” He closed the door and hurried away.
“You think he’s going for reinforcements to get that fake diamond from you?”
“Shh. I don’t want anyone to hear that …” I spit the cubic into my hand and put it back in my pocket. “No, I think I’ve figured out one thing, just like some of the drug dealers we used to deal with.”
“What’s that? You can’t trust them?”
“Don’t underestimate their greed.”
“You’re probably right.”
“You know what else? They’re not that bright.”
Jimmy burst out laughing.