The red phone on the Bonne Jane’s communication console rang. A light flashed on the handset.
“That’s the ship-to-ship line,” Captain Dunn said to Goodkin. “I’m guessing it’s for you.”
“Receiving call,” Goodkin said into his PC’s microphone bud. He rolled his shoulders and reached for the red phone with his right hand, balancing his tablet in his left.
Dunn held the steering wheel steady. “I’ll be as quiet as a ship rat.”
“Be quieter,” Goodkin said. He let the phone ring once more before answering. “This is Nelson Goodkin speaking.”
“Mister Goodkin,” the caller said. The voice was digitized exactly as it had been on the recording of the terrorists’ demands. “Greetings. I would talk with you.”
Goodkin activated his sound recorder app with his thumb and pressed the back of his hand on a switch labeled “Speaker Phone.” A pop sounded inside the bridge as he returned the handset to its cradle.
“Go ahead,” Goodkin said aloud, stepping to the windows, holding his tablet flat before him, his free hand hovering over the screen. He gazed across the bow of the ship toward the horizon. “To whom am I speaking?”
The robotic voice came from the bridge speakers this time. “You will know me as Hussein.”
“All right, Hussein. And who do you represent?”
“We are the Children of Kariqistan.”
Goodkin looked down at his tablet. A window popped open with a map and list of bullet points. He scanned the information. “Research team info: Kariqistan. Obscure former Soviet Republic in South Asia. Primarily Islamic. Very poor, but rich in oil and rare earth minerals. Constant civil war. Gathering data on Children of Kariqistan. Nothing yet, but there are many factions inside the country.”
“All right,” Goodkin said, “And what, may I ask-”
“Stop,” Hussein said. “I talk first.”
“Of course, but eventually I will need to reply. Go ahead, Hussein.”
“Who do you represent, Goodkin?”
“I am a Federal Agent with the United States Department of Homeland Security.”
“So, the pigs sent a lap dog.”
“Hussein, let’s not talk about me. You have hostages. They are my first concern. Let’s talk about them and what we can do to make sure they are returned unharmed.”
“Yes. The hostages. And for holding them you think us evil, yes?”
“What I think isn’t important, Hussein. What matters is that innocent-”
“Let me tell you about hostages, Goodkin. Let me tell you about innocents.”
“When I was a young boy, my village was attacked by bandits. After they had murdered the men and taken the women out to their trucks to rape them, they gathered the children together. One by one they made them run across a field. Escape and you are free, they were told. But the bandits shot them. One by one. Fleeing across an open field, children were shot in the back by monsters and cowards. Only one child survived. He pretended to be dead, a bullet in his shoulder, lying next to the corpse of his sister.”
“That’s terrible, Hussein. But the people-”
“I am that survivor, Goodkin. Shot at five years old. The bodies of my friends, my brothers, my sisters, my father, all were left there to be feasted on by birds and scavenging dogs. I never found my mother. She was taken away with the others, for rape, for sale, or worse. So let me ask you, Goodkin, have you ever seen a field of dead children, half eaten by animals?”
“No, Hussein, I have not. That’s-”
“The men who did this were mercenaries, sponsored by the United States government. Your politicians thought they could buy off one of the countless gangs of thugs in my country. Ah, but you do not know us Kariqistani. They took your money, they killed for you, and when you asked them to do something, they ignored you. You see what your money went to, yes? The killing of the children. This is why we are the Children of Kariqistan.”
Goodkin rocked his head from side to side, stretching his neck, twirling his finger in a “hurry up” motion. He interrupted quickly as Hussein paused.
“That’s a horrific story, Hussein. No one would blame you for being angry. However, just like those children, the hostages you are holding are innocent. You have the power to release them, to prove yourself better than those who attacked your village. The people you are holding have nothing to do with the problems of your country.”
The speakers crackled as Hussein made a noise of disgust. “Ah! This is what you Westerners always say! Democracy is wonderful, people have choice, they control their destiny. Yet somehow you are also always free of blame. No one is at fault because it is always someone else who did it, yes? And did my family have anything to do with the evils of the corrupt government in my fatherland? Or the corrupt government in your land that armed them? Or the petroleum and mining multinationals that control your military and plunder my country?”
“No, Hussein. No, they did not.”
“So they did not deserve to die.”
A flashing message popped up on Goodkin’s tablet: “Psych team advisory: Do not get bogged down in debate.”
Goodkin tapped on the message to delete it.
“They did not deserve to die,” he said. “Neither do the people on that boat.”
“But my guests reap the benefits of this corruption. All around me here on this ship I see nothing but luxury. I would love for these pampered fools to live one day in Kariqistan. They would be broken by nightfall, when they realized their servants had run off with their food. Soon enough they would join me. Perhaps yet I may convert some.”
His digitized dry chuckle sounded like a computer error alert.
“Hussein, they are human beings like you, and like any child from Kariqistan. What is it you want? What can I do for you? What can I do so you will let them go?”
“Ah, Goodkin. Now we come to what is important. Here is what we must have. All American forces, official and unofficial, meaning your mercenaries, must leave Kariqistan. We want all resource-thieving multinationals out as well and we want fifty million dollars in cash. The money must be provided in untraceable American bills. If you do not deliver, we will return our guests one body at a time.”
“Hussein, you sound like an honorable man. There’s no need to hurt anyone, but I’ll need to make some calls about those requests, all right?”
“They are demands. Not requests. And no hostile actions, Goodkin. For each one of my men harmed, I will kill twenty Americans. I have plenty to spare.”
“I’m working with you, Hussein. There’s no need for violence.”
“I am generous and patient, Goodkin, but do not disappoint me. For now our talking is complete. Do not bring any other vessels into this area and make no aggression.”
“No hostile action will be taken against you. I will be in touch soon.”
Goodkin flipped the switch on the console. The sound in the bridge cut off with a sharp click. Goodkin adjusted his mic bulb and began tapping his tablet.
“You get all that?” he said. “Any progress on finding the Kariqistan ambassador? Yeah. I know. Good luck with that one. I never heard of them either. It’s probably a new terror group, that place grows them like weeds. Or poppies. Right. Let me know. Thanks.”
Goodkin sat down on a stool and closed his eyes.
“So,” Captain Dunn said, “you’re all right doing this whole thing alone?”
“I’m not alone at all,” Goodkin said, holding up his tablet. “The team’s right here. Besides, most of them are needed to handle optics and relations.”
“Optics and relations?”
“I know the type,” Dunn said. “From my days in the marines. You do the work, guys on shore get all the credit since it’s their face on the news. It’s a great way to kick-start a career without having to do anything. You create the impression you helped when all you really did was announce that something got done. But it-”
“My tablet is still transmitting, Captain. They can hear everything we say.”
Dunn clamped his lips shut, his cheeks flushed.
Goodkin stood with his back to the captain, hands clasped behind him, the rectangular screen of the tablet reflecting Dunn’s scowling face.
The captain looked away. “So. Uh, now what?” he asked. “Is the guy going to get his money?”
“Not a chance. Official policy is we don’t negotiate with terrorists. We let them think they might have their demands met, but we’re really just waiting them out.”
“Oh,” Dunn said. “Well, what if they-”
“Just pilot the boat,” Goodkin said, cutting him off. “That’s all I need from you.”
Dunn didn’t reply. With his right hand clamped on the wheel, he raised his binoculars with his left and scanned the decks of the Sunset Mist. Other than the shadows moving behind the tinted bridge windows, she seemed completely abandoned.
He lowered his binoculars and shook off a chill.