Lauren, in front of his ‘amigos,’ hit the upper Lido deck cabin door running, changed course slightly with the way the bridge attached to the top of the stairs, and then went through the deck hatch at a dead sprint, his small but powerful compact revolver extended out in his right hand ready to open fire if necessary. Sharon, Ashton’s men with Yee and Hiyashi followed, but being unarmed kept a bit back. Lauren observed the U.S. Attorney crouching down in the space between the control center and the front bulkhead of the bridge. He ran right past the man and only slowed, but finally come to a stop, at the end of the starboard bridge extension. He peeked over the edge of the sheltering steel plate that acted like a five-foot railing on that extension to stare out over the panorama of Bellows Beach, spread across hundreds of acres and seemingly only a few steps away. What else he saw astounded him.
Gunshots rang out, but there was something about them that was not quite right to Lauren’s trained ear. The entire beach area was swarming with armed men in full combat attire. Hundreds of men were landing from the gaping mouth of a nearby giant hovercraft as long as, but four times wider, than the ship. Smaller armored personnel carriers slipped by the hull of the grounded ship to head on in toward the beach. Beach swimmers stood around in the shallows with hands crossed on top of their heads in surrender. Lauren realized that the civilian swimmers should never have been there in the first place. Somehow, they had avoided security to swim at the beautiful expanse of the beach on a weekday. Normally, the public was only allowed to use the beach on weekends, and then only if there were no Marine landing exercises.
Tuck came up the gantry in a low squatting run.
“What’s happening?” he asked. “Where did all this come from? Do we fire back or what?” Tuck’s frustration was evident.
His magnum was out and covering the whole inlet of the beach, but there were hundreds of targets. Not one of them paying the least attention to the ship. It was as if the entire vessel was nothing more than a huge coral head that had risen from the sea, to be ignored until the mission of taking the beach was completed.
“Holster the piece,” Lauren ordered, lowering his own. “We can’t fight the active elements of a United States Marine landing force. We’re in the middle of a Marine Corps amphibious training exercise. Those shots were, and are, coming from weapons with blank firing devices attached, that’s why they sound so muffled. The blanks expend enough gas to operate the automatic and semi-automatic weaponry but the gas has to exist in a pressured form. The BFA’s provide the necessary blockage, like that of a bullet, allowing the guns to fire as you’ve heard for the past few minutes.
“The Marines don’t care about us right now,” he went on, “we’ll come later. And, by the way, somewhere nearby is a shitload of live ammunition, if the Marines care to access it. Let’s make sure we don’t give them a reason to load live ammo into their weapons.”
Lauren moved quickly across the bridge, Trueson joining Tuck in following just behind Lauren. He went through the port hatch to the end of the port extension and looked down toward the bottom of the gantry. Another Zodiac was pulling in. There were no uniforms aboard the black rubber boat that Lauren could make out. There were, however, a group of civilian men of middle age dressed in loose-fitting semi-military looking attire, and giving every indication that they climbed ship side-mounted gantries for a living. The Zodiac pulled close into the side of the ship riding the waves gently into the side of the hull smoothly. Two of the men roped the boat off bow and stern, and then led the ascent up the angled ladder leading right to the Lido deck, while Tuck and Lauren stood above, peering down.
“Here comes the real trouble,” Lauren said. “If Ashton’s afraid of these guys then we ought to be afraid too. Forget the Marines for now. They’re window dressing. Let’s get inside. I want cover behind me from the top of the Lido deck stairs leading down to the deck cabin. I don’t know who these people are but I’m willing to bet that, right this minute anyway, any enemy of Ashton is an enemy of ours.”
Tuck moved across the bridge to get set up inside the top access to the Lido cabin staircase. Lauren waited. He stared down toward the gantry, trying to learn what he could by observation. All the men were large and very smooth moving. They moved like a SEAL team Lauren had witnessed once before in training. They moved like leopards, smoothly, and deceptively fast. They wore long coats, kind of ridiculous in Hawaii’s wonderfully warm weather, but worn to effectively cover what weapon systems they had to be in possession of. They wore crumply rain hats to disguise their faces from anyone not looking too closely, or directly at them.
Lauren knew he was staring down at a team of wet workers; people who worked in blood. In their backpacks, there would be plastic garbage bags and rubber gloves. The men coming up the gantry worked to clean up situations that might cause the government or anyone who could afford to hire them, embarrassment or harm. They themselves could be denied or be swept away without much complaint if things went wrong. Their purpose appeared evident in the way they moved. Lauren stared intently downward, finally catching the face of one man who looked up. The man wore a flat-faced unemotional expression, probably deliberately practiced over time in order not to send any message at all if he was identified or ‘spotted,’’ as was the term used in intelligence for such revelations.
Lauren pulled back and moved quickly through the hatch to the top of the stairs to the Lido deck, where Tuck was well placed to provide covering fire. He didn’t stop, instead skipping quickly down the stairs to arrive on the Lido deck and confront the just arriving lead man. As soon as the man saw Lauren he stopped, held up one fist and pumped it up and down once. The men behind him froze in whatever position they were in. The lead man dropped his fist to his side casually, his hand opening and sliding across his right thigh, which is when Lauren shot him.
The distance was more than thirty feet so the small cloud of birdshot expanded to almost six feet in diameter before striking the man with a hundred pellets half the size of BB gun ammunition. The big man jerked his head back, grimaced and bent down a bit, but he didn’t go down. He opened his eyes, small red dots pocketing his face. Then he returned to his fully erect position and simply stood there, looking back at Lauren without moving.
Lauren felt deep uneasy fear penetrate straight through him. The man had to be wearing body armor under his loose clothing. Lauren was facing a kind of enemy and opponent who was way out of his league, and he knew it.
“Hello,” the mildly bleeding man said, causing Lauren’s already present fear to reach into his stomach to cause it to shiver and then flip over several times.
“Hello,” Lauren mumbled more to himself than back at the man.
The wounded leader of the team, peppered with birdshot put into him by the man standing before him, and all he had to say was hello? Lauren thought to himself, his fear continued to grow at the thought of such a thing and the man’s exhibition of cold analytical response to being so wounded.
“Hi,” Lauren, tried again, this time speaking louder, clearing his throat as he went. He could not keep himself from going on, “Sorry,” he apologized, uncontrollably, for no good reason, and likely letting the other man know he was in a state of fearful shock.
“Delta Force. We’re coming aboard. We’re acting in the interest of the country. Like you Mr. Prince.”
The man said the words as if he was reading form some pre-memorized script.
“My name is Prentice, not Prince. And I have no reason to let you on my ship, no matter who you are or profess to be. You’re trespassing.”
“Look, Mr. Prince,’ the man said, wiping the small rivulets of blood from his face with one overly large hand. “We all agree that it’s your ship. Okay? Now what we’ve got here is a man aboard, and an operation conducted aboard, gone rogue. Ashton and his men are about to steal billions from unsuspecting rubes somehow put into play to help make all this happen. No offense.”
“None taken,” Lauren replied, offended by the ‘rube’ usage, but not about to show it. “As the owner of this ship, what can I do for you?”
“Don’t shoot me again,” the big man said, holding one hand outward with palm exposed. “They told me you seem to like to shoot people with that thing. I can’t shoot you back because of my orders. But I have to come aboard and take care of Ashton and whoever’s with him.”
“How in the hell do you expect to get by me if you can’t shoot me?” Lauren asked the man, mystified, brandishing the small handgun in front of him.
“Oh, it’s okay to shoot us. You’ve only got a few shots left with that five-round piece, unless you reloaded. No matter. We’ve got to come aboard anyway. Smyth, front and center,” he yelled.
One of the men behind him came running forward. He was even larger than the bloodied leader.
“Stand there and let this man shoot you,” the leader of the team instructed. “Go ahead. Shoot him,” he said to Lauren, pointing at Smyth. He’s ready. How many times have you been shot before Smyth?” the leader questioned his own man.
“Three, sir,” the man replied, standing at attention.
“Shoot him, he’s used to it,” the leader instructed Lauren.
Lauren stared at the man he was supposed to shoot. The man stood erectly at attention. The kind of attention Lauren had seen only one place before.
“You a Marine?” he said to the man.
“Yes, sir. I was. Staff Sergeant, Sir. Almost made Gunny but I got hurt in that damned war.”
“How do you know I’m a ‘sir,’ Staff Sergeant,” Lauren asked, genuinely curious, and stalling for time. How did the mercenary ex-Seal type leader of the unit know Lauren had shot anybody with the small weapon? They’d been at sea under power. How could anybody ashore know what had happened while they were running without real ship to shore communications?
“How many rounds have you got left in that popgun? The team leader inquired, overriding the conversation Lauren had started with the Marine. “Shoot him and I’ll bring up the rest of the team. You can shoot them too.”
“I can’t shoot him,” Lauren said, exasperated with not only the situations developing in front of him, but with himself, as well. “He was a Marine,” Lauren stated flatly. “I can’t shoot a Marine. It’s not in me.”
“You can’t kill Ashton and his men, either. And I can’t shoot your men, and I also can’t let you kill Ashton and his men. What do we do?” Lauren pointed his small revolver back at the big bleeding leader.
“Shit,” the man said, in resignation. “You’re going to shoot me again?”
“I don’t know,” Lauren replied, as honestly as he could. “I don’t know what to do. You’ve got to help me here.”
Lauren heard a slithering sound behind him. He didn’t take his attention off the team leader or the former Marine Staff Sergeant, however.
“Who’s that?” he asked, hoping the response would come from a friendly.
“Shapiro,” a gasping voice said from behind him.
Lauren identified the slithering sound as an oxygen bottle being dragged across the floor.
“What do we do here?” he asked the old man without turning to look at him.
“They came from the destroyer,” Shapiro said, in a labored voice. “They didn’t come with the Marines. We need the destroyer captain. He can acknowledge the Letter of Marque. He can assume responsibility for any violence. We need that man aboard.”
“So there it is,” Lauren said to the wounded team leader. “I don’t have to shoot anybody. We bring the Navy captain aboard and let him sort it all out. How’s that?”
“I’m not sure,” the team leader replied. “All right if I make a cell phone call?” he asked.
“Go ahead,” Lauren answered, but then there came the sounds of a physical commotion from below.
“We’ve got boarders, sir,” one of the men behind the team leader said. “What do you want us to do?”
“Who are they?” the man responded, holding his cell phone up but not dialing.
“Gangway,” a deep voice yelled up the ladder from below. Several men in uniform made their way up to arrive standing near the Delta Force Leader and his men.
“Colonel Poolau,” Commanding Officer in charge of Kaneohe Marine Base, and this landing area, at your service. Who do we have here? Captain Johnson of the Chaffee is with me. He’s coming up. What in the hell is going on? How did this ship come to be here in the middle of my training exercise? Who are all you people?”