The Katrina Contract

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Chapter 2

The door sprung shut behind Goodkin. He jolted and wiped his glasses again, glancing around Captain Dunn’s sparsely decorated office. A framed commendation from a Florida senator hung on the wall next to a photo of the Captain with his arm around a young woman who appeared to be his daughter. Tucked into the frame was a wallet-sized photo of Dunn smiling, holding an infant wrapped in a pink blanket.

The rest of the wall space was covered with intricate maps of the sea, crisscrossed by lines, symbols and numbers. On the maps Goodkin was used to, land was the focus and water was represented as a featureless solid blue. This map was the opposite. All the detail was in the sea, the land indicated by unmarked pale green shapes.

“Keep it,” Goodkin said out loud. “You can have it.”

He sat at the captain’s computer and double-clicked an audio file on the desktop.

A narrator introduced the clip: “Cruise vessel Sunset Mist departed Miami en route to Bermuda at oh seven hundred hours. This call was received at Miami port command at oh nine hundred hours.”

A beep followed, then the actual call. A persistent hiss sounded behind the gasping voice. “S.O.S.! S.O.S.! This is Captain Karl Vernon of the luxury liner Sunset Mist calling out to anyone who can hear. We’re being overrun by terrorists. Lock that door! That one, too. Block it with something! Men in masks, they’ve got guns. Look like AKs. I don’t know what nationality. Uh, it looks like they’re taking hostages. I don’t know how many or where they came from. Ah, just guessing now. Maybe seven? Eight men? They may have been among the passengers. Oh, shit-”

The sound of muffled machine gun fire crackled in the background, obscuring a barrage of cursing from the men near Captain Vernon.

“Warning shots. They were just warning shots, thank God. Looks like they’re herding everyone into the ballroom. No visible casualties. Block that goddamn-”

A enormous bang obliterated whatever he said next.

“-in! They’re storming the bridge-”

A scraping noise was followed by a voice that sounded only part human. It reminded Goodkin of a computer-synthesized voice, or a throat cancer survivor wearing an artificial larynx.

“Hands up,” the robotic voice said.

“We surrender,” Vernon yelled. “Crew! Hands in the air! Now!” His voice faded as he moved from the microphone. The crew’s protests diminished. The next sound was the unmistakable crack of slapped flesh.

“I said we surrender!” Vernon cried.

“On your knees!” the robotic voice answered. “All of you. If you have a cell phone, throw it down now. If later we find you kept one, we will kill you! Do it n-”

The sound stopped with a solid click.

“Transmission ceases there,” the narrator said.

Goodkin emailed the file to his tablet. Using the captain’s mouse he opened a second audio file.

“This call was received at Miami port at oh nine thirty hours,” the same narrator said. The hissing background noise returned, and this time the digitized throat-cancer-survivor voice spoke up close.

“Attention all of you stinking pigs and rabid dogs who inhabit the evil nation of the U.S.A. We are the Children of Kariqistan. Listen very carefully or every one of your countrymen aboard this ship will die. Here is what we require: all multinational corporations must leave Kariqistan. All Western forces must withdraw from our nation and all Muslim nations worldwide. Finally, the sum of fifty million dollars shall be delivered to me in cash. Fail to fulfill these demands and the Americans on this ship will never be seen alive again. I will allow only one boat in our vicinity for communication and delivery of these demands, but that is all. Any more will be considered a hostile act. Do not challenge us.”

“Transmission ceases there,” the narrator said.

Goodkin rested his tablet on the captain’s desk so he could use both hands, tapping and swiping his computer’s screen.

The door opened and Captain Dunn poked his head around the corner. “Mister Goodkin?”

“Some quiet, please?” Goodkin said. “I’m making notes. Transmitting them back to the nerve center.”

Dunn entered the office carrying rolled up sheets of office paper. He stood over Goodkin and waited a moment.

“May I have my seat?” the captain asked.

Goodkin looked around, surprised.

“Oh, of course.” He stood to let Dunn behind the desk and took the chair on the other side.

Dunn pointed to Goodkin’s tablet. “The lives of all those people on that boat rely on that little thing?”

“This little thing,” Goodkin said, still hunched over and tapping on the screen, “is cutting-edge tech. It keeps me jacked in with an enormous diplomatic, media, advisory and research network.”

“So you’re just the tip of the iceberg.”

“If it helps you to conceptualize my organization using ocean-based metaphors, then yes, I am, in more ways than one. This negotiation is part of an experimental program. We’re testing scalable models on how to address these crises in the future. I helped design this approach.”

“Hm,” Dunn said. “Probably is cheaper to send just one guy.”

“And more efficient. Conceivably, we could have multiple incidents at once. Our adversaries could attempt to overload our preparedness, a denial of service attack, if you will. Better to have a central command staffed with psychological profilers, negotiation experts, linguists, et cetera, with a single representative in the field, wired into everyone. We don’t need to expend resources shipping a herd of people along just to talk.”

“Nothing wrong with saving money,” the captain said. “Just seems like a heck of a thing to experiment around.”

“Someone has to lead when we’re developing new paradigms.” Goodkin rocked his head back and forth and from side to side, stretching his neck. “Now, if you don’t mind, I need some of your files.”

The captain raised his eyebrows and hesitated as if he was thinking of something to say. Finally he chose silence and slipped on a pair of bifocals. He leaned his head back slightly while looking at the screen.

“You’re going to make me use this thing, aren’t you?”

“I was going to do it for you, but you wanted your seat.”

“Well, I could use the practice.” Dunn slid the mouse around, mumbling to himself while Goodkin fidgeted. “What is it you need?”

“I was wondering if you heard from your sources about any pre-event orbital perspective imagery.”

Dunn stared at him.

“Did you hear back from the satellite people?” Goodkin said. “You said they promised to email you.”

“That’s right. They should have.”

After far more mouse clicks than could have possibly been necessary to open one email, Dunn spoke again.

“Looks like we got a response. Here goes. Captain Dunn, satellite shows nothing unusual. Only the target vessel. No unusual movement on deck. Tracking indicates no external ship-to-ship transfer. Full spectral analysis indicates no hull penetration by subsurface vehicles.”

Goodkin tapped away on his PC while he talked. “So that indicates a strong probability the terrorists were commingled with the civilians when the ship embarked. Does the email say anything about the passenger list?”

Dunn kept reading. “Let’s see. Passenger list has been sent for investigation. Will call with results and email negotiation team at address provided by federal agent Goodkin. That’s all it says.”

Goodkin checked his screen. “Hm. No messages yet,” he said.

“You want to see the pictures my chopper pilot took?” Dunn asked.

“Sure. That won’t take long.”

“I told you he was taking fire.”

“Of course.”

Dunn grabbed the papers he had brought and laid all three out on the table.

“Printouts?” Goodkin said. “Paper?”

“Yeah,” Dunn said. “One of the guys in the tech center printed them for me.”

“Can you just do a wireless transfer, or give me the chopper’s memory stick?”

Dunn paused. “Um, I can have someone-”

“Never mind,” Goodkin said, “I’ll take a picture and transfer.”

He held his tablet out, using the camera built into the back to snap a shot of each color printout.

The first photo was of a man dressed completely in black, including gloves and a ski mask. The only place his bronze skin showed was in the eye and mouth holes of the mask. He was holding a pole with an American flag on the end. Flames curled around the flag’s blackened edge.

Goodkin snapped a picture of the next image.

The second photo showed the charred remains of the American flag hoisted on the ship’s main mast, underneath another flag comprising two thick stripes, one black and one green.

“I didn’t immediately recognize the flag,” Dunn said.

“Looks like a permutation of the internationally-recognized Kariqistan flag. Before you ask where Kariqistan is, it’s in that region that borders the south of Russia.”

“Ah,” the captain said, “Genghis Khan territory.”

“That’s right. All his inbred children surrounded by mountain ranges and well-armed. After the Commies went out of business, dozens of tiny landlocked countries no one ever heard of and no one can pronounce showed up in there. Profile is primitive yet volatile.”

“Well, if their borders don’t touch the sea, I’m probably not going to know about them,” Dunn said. “Still, I could probably brush up on geography.”

“Don’t bother,” Goodkin said. “The country itself doesn’t know where it begins and ends. Before you picked me up, we tried to call the Kariqistan ambassador. Problem was, there was no consensus from their embassy on who that might be. Several factions claim legitimate governance. One ambassador was out to eat, the other was at a strip club. Whichever one responds first is the one the home team will deal with, but that’s their action item, not mine.”

“It’s just not natural for people to live that far away from water,” the captain said. “I think it messes with their heads. But I guess you’re not here for my opinion.”

“No. I’m not.”

Goodkin held his tablet over the third photo and snapped a picture. Three terrorists had their upper bodies obscured by muzzle flashes as they fired at the helicopter.

“No explanation needed for this one,” Goodkin said. Both men were silent for a moment. The only sounds were Goodkin’s gentle tapping on his tablet’s screen and the constant hum of the ship’s engine.

“My commanders haven’t told me much,” Captain Dunn said, “other than to ferry you out there.”

“Mm,” Goodkin said, not looking up.

“I know you’re probably not at liberty to say, but some of my crew are a little nervous. Could these Kariqistanis be body bombers? Maybe they’re planning to destroy the boat even if their demands are met.”

“It’s not a suicide mission.” Goodkin still didn’t look up.

“Why do you say that?”

“They’re disguising their voices.”

“That robot sound?”

“Yes. Why change your voice if you’re just going to kill yourself?”

Dunn thought about it. “Makes sense. And why hide behind a mask?”

“You got it. The psychology of their actions indicates they want to live.”

“Hm,” Dunn said. “Makes perfect sense.”

“Good.”

“No. That’s bad.”

Goodkin finally looked up. “How so?”

“I’m a sailor. Always have been. The sea is unpredictable. It does strange things to people. It’s taught me to always account for madness. I’m suspicious of anything that makes sense in a nice, neat way. Maybe it is a suicide mission, or there’s some other reason their voices are changed that we’re not considering. Maybe they’re protecting their families back home. Maybe they’re just nuts.”

Goodkin rested his chin on his folded hands and smiled gently.

“Captain, for as long as you’ve been at sea, I’ve been studying the pathology of individuals in high-tension, high-stakes interpersonal communication. So let’s make a deal. I’ll leave the boat captaining to you. You leave the analysis to me.”

Dunn shrugged. “Fine. What do I know?”

“Exactly.”

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