The Navatek ripped through the torn sea at high speed; its passengers isolated twenty feet above the wild close combat of ten-foot cross-swells fighting it out for dominance. The Molokai Express was actively at its most dangerous, as offshore winds were reaching maximums not seen in years. At almost thirty miles per hour, racing forward into winds reaching higher than that, it was impossible to be anywhere out upon the few external decks of the ship. Wind, spray and fast drying salt, pelting the hull like from a shotgun, made any exposure to the brutal elements almost impossible to accommodate for any but the shortest of time.
The black Zodiac sent out from Shapiro’s ship toward them ran at high speed directly toward the bow of the Navatek, with a collision seemingly inevitable. Lauren stood on the bridge, peering through the thick glass, watching the black rubber machine leap from one wave top to another, obviously guided by an expert who knew and understood the relationship between high-performance boats and raging seas, and likely was an old hand in dealing with the treacherous waters of the Molokai Express.
“Does this ship have a center hatch opening to the sea below?” Lauren asked Captain Nelson, having examined the boat months earlier out of curiosity when the odd naval vessel was docked in Honolulu Harbor.
“Yes, it does, but we’ve never really used it,” the man responded. “It opens, but there’s no gantry, ladder, or any way to get down to the sea fifteen feet below without jumping down, and certainly no way to get up from the water and into the hatch. Why do you want to know?”
When Lauren didn’t answer, Nelson continued, “what’s on your mind, and what’s that Zodiac doing off the bow? This charter’s getting stranger and stranger as we proceed. I’m not going to go on without being brought told what’s really going on out here.”
“A few of us are getting off,” Lauren informed him, deliberately avoiding answering the captain’s question dealing with what might be going on. “We don’t need a gantry or ladder. We’ll just drop into the sea and let the guys in the Zodiac pick us up after you run on ahead. My wife is staying aboard with Hiyashi and the legal guys. All you have to do is what you’re told by whoever tells you. I’ll see that you get a twenty thousand bonus for your efforts. Nothing here is involved with anything you might consider to be illegal.”
“Twenty thousand what?” Captain Hansen asked back, his forehead furrowed by a many-wrinkled frown. “Oh,” he said, after a few seconds, when there was no response. “But, of course,” he finally breathed out with a faint but sickly smile.
Lauren returned, skipping down the stairs to the second deck, enjoying the fact that he had to take the rapid steps more like a dancer than a regular person. The ship, although traversing the water with only moderate reactive movement, still was not entirely or predictably stable. Once down, he moved to the table in order to sign the documents pushed toward him by Shapiro.
“There’s too much trust required here,” Lauren said to Trueson, as he began signing the documents, “and we don’t have much time. The Zodiac crossing over from the ship is almost dead ahead of us.”
He stood up when he was done and took Shapiro’s cell phone from his pocket. The Deputy U.S. Attorneys signed and notarized the papers quickly and efficiently, their small stamps making rapid clicks as they plunged them down on ink pads and then recorded their identities on page after page of the thick set of agreements.
“My word is good,” Trueson said. “I’m the United States Attorney here. The government is gaining a great advantage from this and I think you know that. We’re not going to bother with screwing with the people who made it happen, no matter how skeptical they might feel about that fact.”
Trueson signed the Letter of Marque under the signature of the Secretary of the Navy.
“Here’s your letter,” Trueson finally said, before placing the facsimile of the ornate letter on top of a small pile one of his assistants had put together.
“Find a plastic bag. In fact, a couple of them,” Lauren instructed Sharon. “I’ve got to have the Letter of Marque physically on me over there. “What’s the number for your ship?” he turned and asked of Shapiro. “Who’s the real contact over there and how do we reach him, presuming that the man your left in charge is the captain?
“That would be Johnson,” Shapiro replied. “They call him ‘Tuck,’ which you’ll understand when you meet him. He should be in the boat coming to us, however. The captain of the Zodiac is named Fuentes, but he’ll have likely given his cell to Tuck. At least, if he’s thinking like he usually thinks. The numbers on the contact’s screen.”
Lauren pushed a button and lit up the smartphone. He discovered Fuentes’ first name was Jesus. He tapped the contact entry.
“I’ll try to reach Pearl,” Trueson said. “I don’t know how to contact the captain of the Chaffee without going through Ashton when using the radio. If what Ashton says is true, that he’s operating under the authority of the president, it’s not going to matter much. We’re all witnesses out here though so Ashton can’t go too far off the reservation.” Trueson moved away from others and went over to pace by the far windows, as he’d done before when talking on the phone.
Sergeant Yee and Rudy Hiyashi moved to the table to collect their own sets of documents.
Sharon returned with a couple of small Ziploc bags. She placed the Letter of Marque in a bag and then pointed at the remainder of the pile. She looked at Lauren and waited. He shook his head.
“You keep the documents,” Lauren replied to her unasked question. “They’re safer aboard the Navatek. I don’t think anybody involved in this wants the kind of violence that would turn this entire affair into a national incident.”
“Mr. Shapiro?” a deep voice answered into Lauren’s ear, after the fourth ring.
“No, this is Lauren Prentice, Tuck. I’m the new owner of the ship you are currently captain of.” He held the phone out and moved it over until it was in front of Shapiro’s lips.
“He is, indeed,” the old man said clearly. “This is Shapiro, which I’m certain you recognize and accept. I’ll be coming aboard the ship soon with the proper documents to record the new ownership that Mr. Prentice has alluded to on this call.”
“Where are you guys and how many people will that Zodiac hold?” Lauren asked.
“In these seas, I’d say ten of us, maximum, maybe twelve in an emergency. If there were that many, however, we would be hard put to make any speed in getting back to the ship. It’s pretty uncomfortable out there in a small boat, even something as stable as the Zodiac, Mr. Prentice.”
Lauren liked the man he was talking to almost immediately. Crisp respectful statements had issued out from the phone, with no question at all about the change of ownership and, of course, the potential change to the captain’s position. Some Navy Seals were almost as good as Marines, Lauren reflected before responding.
“We’re going to drop out of the hatch located midway along the center of the hull, according to the Navatek captain,” Lauren informed the man. “It would be most helpful if you were nearby and able to pull us from the water once the Navatek runs over and beyond us. There should be plenty of clearance for your Zodiac as you make your way through.”
“Clearance sufficient, even making speed,” Tuck informed him. “We’ll take a straight shot through and under the hull, and then swing around the port side and come up under from the stern, sir. Our expected time to be on the station should be two minutes, from the time you give the order.”
“Affirmative Tuck,” Lauren said. “and we’ll be dropping down through the hatch in about three minutes. There’s five of us.”
“Roger that, sir,” Tuck reported.
A huge boom exploded out of the phone. Lauren pulled the phone away from his ear. The same boom repeated, except this time coming from directly in front of the ship. The second explosion was ten times more imposing and deeper in tone than the one heard over the phone. Everyone in the cabin rose as one.
“What in hell?” Trueson exclaimed, dropping his cell phone to his side. “We’ve been fired on.”
The Navatek came full stop in the water faster than Lauren would have believed. “I guess the Navy means business,” he said. “Let’s see if we can still get off this thing.”
He held the cell phone back up to his ear. “You still alive out there Tuck?”
“Yes sir. Just taking a little incoming fire, sir. We slipped in under the bow a few seconds ago. When will you cross the line of departure sir, should we still be proceeding with the mission?”
“You can do what the hell you want,” Sergeant Yee said to Lauren. “HPD doesn’t work for the Navy, or for the President of the United States for that matter, but me and my men aren’t going out into that water with the Navy firing live rounds nearby.”
“You still in, Shapiro?” Lauren said to the old man, holding the cell phone to his chest as if it was an old-fashioned landline instrument.
Shapiro removed the oxygen gear from his head before speaking. “I’m out of air. The Navy might have some but I’d rather gamble on Tuck and the guys than on Ashton and whatever he’s up to.” The old man got unsteadily to his feet.
“Two coming down, momentarily,” Lauren said to Tuck before clicking the phone off.
He slipped the cell into the Ziplocs, doubling the bags before folding them in half and placing them inside the old canvas belt, which he then quickly strapped it around his waist.
“I’ve come to a full stop and the Navatek will remain here in neutral until it’s ordered to change position, with permission, or further instructions from the Navy, of course.” Captain Nelson spoke from his position at the bottom of the bridge ladder, his voice calm and unwavering as if he was used to being fired upon all the time by naval vessels at sea.
“Trueson,” Lauren instructed, “call nine-one-one and get the Coast Guard. Everyone along the coast of Oahu will have heard that shot. It’s unlikely any other federal agencies have been brought into this. Let’s bring them in. This whole area needs to be crawling with Home Security and Coast Guard personnel. Then call the Air Force after that. They might even launch f-15s out of Hickam to see what’s going on.”
Trueson said nothing for a few seconds, his mind obviously racing. The naval artillery hadn’t visibly shaken the captain but it’d deeply affected Trueson. He began punching numbers on the face of his cell phone.
“The hatch. We need to get to the hatch.” Lauren said to Nelson, moving to take Shapiro by one arm.
Yee took the man’s other arm.
“I might as well help, although I think you’re making a big mistake,” Yee said. “Don’t go out there. This wouldn’t have gone down without you. I see that now, and you don’t want to pay for what you’ve done with your life. Thank you.”
Yee bowed his head quickly twice before looking away as if the act of thanking Lauren was difficult for him.
“You carrying a backup, Sergeant?” Lauren asked, surprised by the man’s honest thanks, and for providing some assistance in moving Shapiro to the stairs that led down to the hatch.
The sergeant didn’t speak for a full minute as they followed Captain Hanson, preceding them off the main deck. “Taurus Judge, in four-ten shotgun, bird pellet load,” Yee said, stopping to pull the weapon from his ankle holster.
“Thanks,” Lauren replied, accepting the weapon butt first. He’d heard of the specialized compact handgun but never handled one. It was a five-shot revolver, instead of six, but extremely deadly at close range. He jammed the weapon into one small pocket on the outside of the canvas ‘U.S. Navy’ belt he wore.
“I’ll call when the coast is clear aboard the ship,” Lauren said to Sharon, over his shoulder. “You’ve got the papers, no matter what. Ten million and that house should go a long way, if I don’t make it and if they make good on the money, as promised.”
With one arm clutching the paperwork under her arm Sharon followed them down the stairs to the lower level. Nelson opened a cabinet located against the bulkhead in a long hallway running from bow to stern on that lower level. A four by eight-foot section of the deck, located in the exact center of the deck slowly began opening, until sounds of pounding waves and wind came pouring up out of the hole. Lauren moved close and peered down over one edge of the hole. The jump into the rough roiling water looked a lot more daunting than he’d imagined. He turned to Sharon, stripped off his watch, and then pried his wallet from his back pocket. Stepping out of his island-made tennis shoes he grabbed Shapiro around the waist. Lauren threw the old man over the edge of the big square hole, and down into the raging storm of a sea below. Lauren glanced over to his wife for an instant.
“You’ll make it,” Sharon said, her voice more hopeful than certain. “You’ll be back. I know it. It’s what you do,” she went on, a very faint smile bending her lips apart.
Lauren leaped over the edge into the hole, wondering too late why he hadn’t thought to see if the Zodiac was nearby or whether Shapiro was clear and out from under him. He hit the water and plunged under the wild jumbled surface, realizing Sharon might be holding too high an opinion of his real survival capabilities.