by REGGIE RIDGWAY
I would like to dedicate this book to my parents,
Patric and Paula, who always supported me in my writing.
Also to my wife Connie for persevering throughout the process.
Socotra Archipelago. Located in the Indian Ocean about two hundred miles off the southern coast of Yemen and East of the Horn of Africa.
"These trees are called Dragon's Blood by the locals," Ahmed intoned. He led a coterie of Japanese investors around the vast property.
"It's one of Socotra's most famous attractions."
Some people in the small group snapped pics with their cell phones of the oddly shaped trees. They looked like blown-out umbrellas, all of their branches reaching upward.
"Ancient Egyptian royalty came here to collect the Dragon Blood tree's red sap. It's said to have miracle healing and anti-aging qualities. There are other rare plants, insects and animals on this island found nowhere else on earth. It's what sets our island apart from all the others. Even the Galapagos Islands can't compare with our island's diversity. Scientists have been coming here for decades to discover, name and catalogue new species of life. Tourists want to come here too, now that the wars in the Middle East are winding down."
They continued walking down a well-worn path past two high-rise-hotels that are still under construction.
"You can see; these twin hotels were over halfway completed when the European contingent pulled out a few years ago. The recession caused the owners to abandon their project, and they've since gone bankrupt."
They arrived at the entrance to a theme park.
"And as you can tell, most of the zoo and marine-land-style aquatic theme park is mostly finished. It was to be the centerpiece attraction for a vacation destination, and it was intended to attract people from all over the world. The zoo is currently open. However attendance is spotty due to our remote location, and since the two adjacent hotels are yet unfinished."
He neglected to add that most of the exotic animals inside are starving and malnourished. The Bengal Tigers, the Lions and other predators are not satisfied with their half rations of dried fish, or the occasional goat or Lemur carcass.
Ahmed turned around startled by a loud crunching sound. He squinted towards the beach. The tide's receding at a phenomenal pace. A roaring sound filled the air, followed by a vacuum, which threatened to suck the oxygen from his lungs and the atmosphere. A massive shadow loomed. Something big hove into view, blocking out the sun.
"Run," Ahmed shrieked. He turned abruptly and followed his advice.
Everyone scattered in all directions. A few of the men paused to take pictures. A fierce wind and ocean spray swirled like a whirlwind tugging at their clothing.
Then it hit.
Three months earlier.
Hamish kissed his mother goodbye. He's wearing his school uniform, which consisted of the ubiquitous white dress shirt, striped tie, black slacks and a blue blazer with a private school crest sewn onto his left chest pocket. He strolled across a shaded courtyard and he listened to the excited chatter from throngs of happy children. He’d spent his formative years living in this orphanage, but unlike the other children, he isn't an orphan. He lives here with his mother, where she’s been working for almost eighteen years.
His mother smiled and waved goodbye at him as he passed. She works as a maid and cook. They live in a nondescript, Spartan furnished apartment. It's located on the property and is protected by twelve-foot walls topped with razor wire. They exist in comparable luxury while the majority of Somali people spend each day suffering in filth. Most people are homeless, living on the streets, or squatting in bombed out buildings. Bullet holes decorate the walls of every structure left standing in this rat-infested rubble. Some are plagued by diseases while most of them are almost starving. A large part of the city’s population are altogether disenfranchised, suffering in abject poverty, and living in one-room-dirt-floor-shanties, barely existing under deplorable conditions.
In stark contrast, his mother's able to send him to a private prep school located just a short walk from the orphanage. He’s considered one of the fortunate few. He studies along with children of high-ranking military and government officials. He was set apart from the huddled masses for most of his eighteen years. He has the best of this region's teachers, who've taught him everything he needs to prepare him for a university. He plans to travel to another country soon, as Somalia has comparatively little to offer someone seeking higher education. The massive doors to the mosque closed behind him as he stepped into the cobblestone street.
While on the way to school, he paused for a moment outside the Mosque to observe a BBC commentator and his camera operator. He's more than a little curious, and he didn’t think his teachers would mind if he's a few minutes late to class, under the circumstances. A foreign BBC camera crew working on the streets outside the Mosque is an uncommon sight these days.
"This is Cameron Perry of the BBC, reporting live from the streets of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, where the people living here are finally breathing a little bit easier. For the last twenty years since the government in Mogadishu was overthrown, the people of Somalia have lived out their days in fear, anarchy and desperation. Civil war, rampant diseases, and famine has torn apart this vast country. Many of its people have spent the better part of those twenty years living in harsh conditions in refugee camps. They're located all along the borders of neighboring countries where entire Somalian families sought relative safety."
"Without an army protecting its borders, opportunistic countries have plundered Somalia’s vast and once plentiful fishing waters and natural resources. They’ve laid waste to once lush forests, burning them down, reducing them to coal they've gathered up and sold abroad. There wasn’t anyone around to stop the pillaging. There's no local police force. There's no Somali army. With relative impunity, foreign countries dumped radioactive waste and poisonous chemicals along this once pristine coastline. Many Somali people have become sick and have since died after they were exposed."
"In desperation, some of out of work fisherman have resorted to high seas piracy as a result. Led by tribal warlords they’ve banded together, and collectively fought back. Over the last twenty years, they’ve managed to overtake cargo ships in small but fast boats. They'd clamber aboard cargo ships while brandishing automatic weapons before taking control. They’ve successfully managed to hijack over 200 foreign commercial cargo vessels. They've captured many ships and held the crew and cargo for ransom, sometimes demanding tens of millions in exchange for their release. The shipping magnates were insured by companies like Lloyds of London, who usually pay pirate ransoms without question. Those shipping companies, who aren't insured, and couldn't pay the ransom, had their vessels stripped of cargo and anything salvageable. Derelicts now lie beached and partially covered by sand. All of them lie rusting in the shallows. They're like so many ghost ships. Those kidnaped crews were set adrift in lifeboats. Search parties rescued them later."
"Powerful warlords have sent roving bands of robbers over land as well, hijacking foreign country's cargo trucks. The trucks were bringing much-needed relief supplies meant for the starving refugees. At the same time, a fast growing al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group called al-Shabaab arose. They began infiltrating local clans, and forcibly converting people in this mostly Muslim country. They've successfully taken over village after village. Today, al-Shabaab terrorists and the Somali Pirates have an uneasy truce between them inside their similar yet disparate factions."
"Now, for the most part, foreign relief truck convoys can travel in relative safety knowing they have armed military escorts. Al-Shabaab and other radical Islamic terrorists recently were defeated by a team of US Navy Seals. And subsequently, they've forced those surviving terrorists into hiding. Pirate's efforts became stymied as well, due to a flotilla of international navy vessels protecting those foreign vessels sailing through Pirate's Alley. It was once considered the most dangerous waters on earth. Coalition forces from neighboring countries such as Uganda and Nigeria have come to the aid of Somalia, and they've provided military muscle, allowing a new provisional government to take shape. Mogadishu appears to be free at last. Already, like a Phoenix, the country of Somali is rising from the ashes and rebuilding itself."
Hamish stood watching until the reporter finished speaking into his microphone. He observed while the television camera operator shut his equipment down. He lingered for a moment more and watched the news crew wrapping things up and loading their vehicle. Then, two black vans careened out of nowhere and entered the plaza. They fishtailed before screeching to a halt. Armed men leaped from the two vans brandishing automatic weapons. They are dressed in camouflaged fatigues, and they wore red and white checkered scarves wrapped around their heads. One of them fired a short burst into the air and began shouting orders. They forced the two BBC camera crew members to their knees. They yanked black hoods over their heads, and they tied their wrists and ankles together with thick plastic zip ties.
Hamish began to back-peddle. He was preparing to turn and flee. Then everything went black when one of the attackers sneaked up behind him. Someone struck him in the back of his head with the butt of a machine gun. He crumpled to the ground like a marionette who‘s strings had been cut. His books and homework papers scattered and were splayed out all around him. Two attackers picked him up under his arms. dragged him backward and thrust him into the van along with the two camera crewmen. One of his assailants slammed a sliding door shut, then climbed into the front seat and started the engine. The black vans screeched off in different directions into nearby alleys. Moments afterward, military trucks arrived filled with heavily armed Ugandan Coalition soldiers. They leaped out from armored Hummers and cordoned off the entire crime scene. They fanned out and began a systematic search for the kidnapper’s vans. They questioned eyewitnesses, who told them various stories of what had happened. The soldiers soon realized the black vans, and everyone held captive inside has simply vanished into thin air.
Hamish awoke into an utter darkness. The floor of the dungeon is hard packed dirt. Instinctively he knew what had occurred to him immediately. Someone has kidnaped him for ransom. These bandits probably think he is the child of a rich family. They probably think his father's a high-ranking officer or a foreign diplomat. He wanted to tell them that they've made a serious mistake. He merely lives with his mother in an orphanage. They are poor.
He never got a chance to meet his father, a NATO foot soldier sent by countries offering military aid to protect, and aid Somalian refugees. He’d been killed long ago in a suicide bomb blast that leveled an American Embassy. The blast killed many soldiers and maimed hundreds more civilians. That terrorist attack happened shortly before the twin's birth.
His mother was forced to bring him, and his twin brother Sahib to an orphanage at the Mosque. She had no other choice but to abandon them there, for their safety. Out of desperation, she'd realized she couldn’t provide a safe environment, or protect them herself. She knew she couldn't raise them all alone in the midst of a civil war.
Life was insufferable back then, and especially difficult for a single woman. And it was certainly hard for an unwed mother and her two newborn children. She had no family or local clan to help her. The tight-knit-local-clan wouldn't let her inside their protective walls. Mostly because of social and religious stigma. They considered her marriage to an outsider an illegal sham, and they did not recognize it. They branded her foreign-born husband a heathen. They also labeled her an outcast, and she became a pariah. In ancient times, she might've been stoned in the streets, her body set on fire. Immolated, just for consorting with a foreigner. Her twin newborn children were considered the spawn of the devil by members of her local clan.
As luck would have it, one of her twins was soon adopted by a rich American family. Sahib. He was relocated to the United States and grew up there. At the time, affluent movie stars and wealthy people adopted children from war-ravaged countries. It was En Vogue and was considered a popular thing to do. People of wealth felt this might be a way to help the current desperate situation, and at the same time have a child of their own to raise. Adoption laws are normally quite strict in the US, but were lax back then in Northern Africa, or perhaps in far off Asia. Anyone with a pile of money could fly through the adoption process, without having to go through two years of delays, with the usual mountains of paperwork, and tangles of red tape.
That American family was overjoyed to receive Sahib. In a continuous show of appreciation, they'd send a generous monthly stipend to his mother, also large endowments to support the orphanage located in the Mosque. However, that had taken place a long time ago.
He has no memories of those earlier times. He'd been only an infant back then. He’d seen photographs of his twin brother, Sahib, as he grew up in the United States. There were many pictures of him taken by the American family, which were sent along to his mother. He often wondered how his life might’ve turned out if he’d been the one chosen. Unfortunately, he'd been sick on that adoption day with an ear infection, and he had a high fever. The Americans were desperate, and they wanted to adopt him too. They had never intended to separate the twins but were forbidden to bring a sick child onto American soil. Since the recent spread of HIV in third world countries, there was a prevailing fear of mysterious emerging diseases which have no known cure.
In spite of everything, his life had turned out pretty good. After nearly a year of living in a Nigerian refugee camp, his mother returned to the orphanage in Somalia, and she reunited with him. Because of an arrangement between the Mosque and the adopting American family, she’d been offered a job inside the orphanage. That rich American family subsidized her salary.
At first, his mother had been devastated when she'd learned one of her twin babies was adopted while she was away in a refugee camp. But, she soon realized that her son Sahib would have a better life, and many more opportunities while growing up in America. She kept in touch with him through letter writing, and she always felt in her heart that she might see Sahib again someday.
She’s been scrimping and saving her extra money since then, putting what she could away for Hamish's education. They've never had to worry about having enough food to eat. They live in a tiny apartment with warm beds, clean wooden floors, and a dry roof. It is posh accommodations in comparison with what most Somalians have. They even have free medical care. In some ways, the adoption of his brother Sahib had somehow saved the three of them from a cruel life of homelessness and poverty. All of their needs were met by those generous monthly stipend checks sent from their rich benefactors living in America. And, by design, his mother has a privileged position at the Mosque. He always dreamed of traveling to America-perhaps to Spain, Europe or the Orient. He's graduating soon and has big dreams for his future. He always strives to make his mother proud of him.
But now his life has taken a radicle turn. All of his dreams and his immediate future's uncertain. The Somali Pirates have kidnaped him for ransom, and he's now kept in a windowless dungeon.
Two months later.
Captain Bennett sipped his coffee from a brass mug and gazed out from a large picture window onto the cruise ship's command bridge. He's afforded a magnificent view not seen by most people. The Red Sea stretched out before him as far as he could see. Undulating combers rolled and heaved before the ship's slicing bow like a giant sea serpent leading the way. Spindrift topped each wave crest, like watery feathers. His cruise ship, A Slice of Heaven, is on its maiden cruise around the world. He felt proud to be the first Captain to command the vessel. He’d just navigating the ship into the mouth of the Suez Canal, and ahead lay the promise of India, Africa, and the Orient. After that, they would take a winding trip down under-Australia, New Zealand, and South America-until at last returning through the Panama Canal to America. This cruise ship passenger's journey began at ports of call in England, Spain, and Greece.
He exited the command bridge while nodding at the officers in his command team, letting them know that they now have the helm. This ship has all the latest navigation devices. It can almost sail by itself on auto-pilot. It's equipped with all of the latest in radar and sonar electronics. His Chief Mate gave him a curt nod in reply. Captain Bennett's aware that the Chief Mate and his other command officers want to impress everyone with their knowledge of sailing, and were probably chomping at the bit and wanting to take over the helm. There's a myriad of tasks of monitoring all the checks and balances necessary to keep this vessel going in the right direction, to arrive at last at all of the proper destinations.
Captain Bennett smiled, and he touched the brim of his hat in salute when he passed near some passengers on his stroll around the ship. A few of them are splayed out on chaise lounges, either reading books on their electronic devices or getting a power nap in before tonight’s planned festivities. It's obvious that most of the passengers are members of the retired set. Most working class people can't afford the luxury of taking a month-long cruise around the world. A few of these people had saved up all of their lives for this single adventure.
There’s not much to see on an average day on the high seas, however. Just miles and miles of empty ocean. An occasional cargo ship or an oil barge might slide by in silence. There'd be a few days before their next port-of-call in Hong Kong Harbor. He and the crew always need to stay onboard while most of the three thousand passengers can disembark to get as much sight-seeing in before returning to the ship.
Security is tight nowadays, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Everyone has to show their valid passports, and a picture ID before re-boarding. When leaving or returning from the ship, their faces are scanned, photographed and scrutinized by the ship's security experts. A few officers onboard most cruise ships like this one know where the weapons are kept. They can usually keep the piece without weapons if a passenger gets unruly or if things get out of hand. Like an Air Marshal does on passenger jets. But this new ship has no one like that onboard. A cruise ship is much like a small city with its set of rules and regulations. Everyone relies on the Captain, and in turn, he depends on his crew to keep the peace.
He rounded the aft part of the deck and paused to watch a foursome of septuagenarians playing putt-putt golf on a stretch of artificial grass. They all are laughing, smiling, and it seems they are having a splendid time.
The majority of the passengers are over sixty, and some are living out their eighth decade. He pursed his lips and pondered the unthinkable. Statistically, there might be at least one death or life-threatening event during a long cruise like this one. Someone might become ill, and even need to be evacuated by helicopter to the closest hospital. Until then, an ill person will have to rely on the ship’s onboard Doctor, and his medical staff. This ship has a fully functional sick bay, with x-ray machines and elaborate lab facilities. The medical staff can even put a person on life support for a short time, at least until a patient's stable enough for helicopter transfer to a nearby hospital. However, a cruise ship’s sick bay is nothing like a real hospital.
He shook his head, looked down at the deck, and tried not to think about negative thoughts. But it's his nature to always to be thinking ahead, to be prepared for any and all eventualities. He peered over the ship's gunnels and watched the vast reaches of the coasts slip past. On one side of the ship lay a stretch of sand dunes, and an occasional military outpost. On the other side, the land is far greener because the fields have continuous irrigation. Sometimes, he can see large palatial mansions and luxurious hotels. On one side lay Egypt. On the other side lay the coast of Saudi Arabia. Soon they’d be passing by Yemen and Somalia through the Gulf of Aden.
He shivered, even though the temperature's hovering into the nineties. It's perpetually muggy, and there is not even a hint of a breeze.
Pirates. He hated Pirates. Especially Somali Pirates. For the last twenty years or so, these waters were teeming with bloodthirsty Pirates. For the most part, the targets of Pirates were cargo vessels and sometimes fishing trawlers. But, so far, they've never approached or have threatened a cruise ship. At least two hundred cargo vessels have been boarded, however, and their crews taken hostage. The owners of those cargo vessels were forced to pay huge ransoms, sometimes in the millions to get their ship and crew back. He took comfort in the knowledge that nowadays, the Pirates are kept at bay by a large armada of international naval ships. The coast of Somalia and its shipping lanes are being safeguarded by these multinational warships, affording a safe passage for everyone, including cruise ships.
Blade, sitting astride a rowing machine, bent forward, and leaned back as he pulled off another rep. He peered forward out the bay window of the cruise ship’s workout center onto the ship’s bow. He grinned. 'It seems like an illusion,' he thought. With every stroke he makes, he appears to cause the vessel to surge forward. It's like he's the only rower on a Viking ship. Faster and faster he pulls. He’s working up a good sweat. His leg prostheses are braced against the footrests. His massive arms flexed, and they are gleaming with perspiration. He leaned forward once again and then arched backward while pulling on the oars. At last he gave it a rest and wiped his neck and brow with a white-terrycloth-towel. He glanced over his shoulder and watched his new bride Ginger as she peddled another lap on a stationary bicycle.
He thought about what had happened earlier in the day. They’d awoke this morning cuddled in each other's arms. Their cabin's small, utilitarian, and furnished with a Spartan taste. They'd opted for the cheapest fare, and there is barely enough room to squeeze around their twin bed. The bathroom's tiny as well. There's just enough room in the shower to turn around in a tight circle. The water pressure’s meager, the temperature is tepid, and it isn't hot enough to make much steam.
They'd huddled on their bed for a while in the afterglow of this morning's love making. They'd smiled at each other, and watched the sunrise from their room's porthole window. Their view never got old, and both are glad they’d at least opted for a room with a tiny window. They’re here on their honeymoon after all. They’d scrimped and saved, and they’d planned this Mediterranean Cruise for the better part of a year. Honeymooning or not, they’ve kept to a daily exercise routine. A regimen that includes jogging around the deck every morning, and every evening, as well as a good two-hour gym workout every morning.
Blade kept his leg prosthetics covered up with sweat pants while Ginger chose to wear a sleeveless tank top. Unabashed, her right arm prosthesis is uncovered, out in the open, and on display. She once was self-conscious about revealing the loss of a limb, a painful reminder of a Blackhawk helicopter crash near Chechnya during the Baltic uprising. But now since marrying Blade, he’d convinced her not to be ashamed, but rather to be proud of her war wound. He'd also persuaded her not to hide her prosthetic arm under wraps, but rather to show it off to the world like it is a badge of courage. They’re both wounded war veterans, and they're proud to have served their country with bravery and distinction.
At first, most people stared at her arm prosthesis with shocked faces. Most people did not even trying to hide their blatant curiosity. That is, until they glanced up into her beautiful face and observed her fierce confidence, and her calm demeanor. They soon forgot all about her physical handicap. She wore her blond hair long. Today, it's swooped up into a perky ponytail. She’s stunning and beautiful. She's blessed with a statuesque athletic body, all toned and tanned. She could pass for an actress or a fashion model. But instead of walking a runway, she’s quite satisfied working as a helicopter pilot. In her day job, she patrols the skies over Los Angeles. She ferries local television news anchormen and freeway traffic reporters around the city, and its environs.
Just then, Blade is jolted from his reverie. He overheard a loud ruckus when the entrance doors to the gym slammed open. He jerked his head sideways and watched a group of college-aged men sauntering into the exercise room.
‘They look to be husky-linebacker-types. And probably play college football together. More than likely they're just some trust-fund punks on spring break,’ Blade thought to himself.
The young group of men noticed Ginger right away, and one of them gave out a warbling-wolf-whistle. Then all at once, they seemed to notice her arm prosthesis. They huddled together, whispering a little too loud. They sniggered in derisive tones. Blade overheard one of them whisper something vulgar to one of his buddies, about what he’d like her to do to him with her plastic hand.
Blade fumed, and he's about to stand up and confront them when he noticed Ginger is giving the men a hard stare. Then, she turned away, ignoring their heckling and she appeared to shrug it off. She paid no more attention to them, and she went back to her workout.
Soon, they tired of bothering her. They became bored at her lack of reaction. They all veered away and disregarded her. Instead, they began horsing around, abusing the exercise equipment. They even taunted a couple of senior citizens who'd been minding their own business. Abruptly, the group exited, and went into an adjacent room where the steam and sauna facilities are located. There followed more raucous laughter, the sounds of smashing trash cans, glass shattering, and the slamming of locker-room-doors.
Blade smiled over at Ginger, and he pantomimed that he was going to leave for a moment to use the restroom. Ginger smiled back with a vacant look. He tried to appear casual while he strolled over to the exit door. He pushed through and entered a large tiled restroom facility complete with two burbling hot tubs. His head on a swivel, he glanced right and left. There’s a door marked “Massage by Appointment Only“. There're several toilette stalls and a row of sinks and urinals. Blade glanced all around him and noticed there are no other passengers present at the moment. He sidled up to the young man who made the crack about what he’d like to do to his wife. He shouldered into him. The guy backed up from the sink where he’d been washing his hands. At first, he gave Blade an irritated look, which turned to a questioning fear.
Blade grabbed the guy by the back of his hair and shoved his head downward into the sink. He twisted a handle turning the hot water on full blast. Steam arose in a cloud, scalding the guys face. He screamed and pressed back, but Blade held his face down in the steamy sink for a long moment before yanking his head back.
“I overheard the crack you made about what you wanted to do to my wife with her prosthetic arm.”
The guy attempted to wriggle around and shake out of Blade's firm grasp. He squirmed, and pushed back on the sink to get away from the painful steam. But Blade managed to hold on tight. At last, he yanked the man’s wet head up and around, so they're face to face. The man's skin is blanched red from the scalding steam. He's blubbering like a baby. Blade pushed his head downward and made him look at his pair of metal leg prosthesis.
“Maybe you can think of something I should do to you with my prosthetics? Like maybe I should kick your ass all around this ship with them.”
Just then the group of young men entered the restroom from the steam and sauna rooms and confronted the situation. They appeared startled, and perhaps somewhat confused at what they saw.
“Let him go mister or…”
“Or you’ll do what?”
Without hesitation, two of the men rushed him from both sides, like massive linebackers blitzing a quarterback. Blade let go of the man with the red face and raised his fists up in a defensive pose.
They both make a motion to tackle Blade, but he knocked one of them unconscious onto the tiled floor with a single round-house-blow to his head just above the left ear. Blade spun around and grabbed the other guy from behind. He held his neck in the crook of his arm, placing him in a headlock. The man struggled, and kicked out with both legs, but he soon slumped to the floor, like a rag doll. The circulation cut off to his brain had rendered him unconscious.
The first man turned around from the sink and aimed a vicious kick at Blade’s chest. Blade reached forward and grabbed the guys foot. He twisted his ankle to the side and shoved him backward knocking him off balance. The guy lurched and fell forward crashing into the metal door of a bathroom stall. He landed on his hands and knees staring at the inside of a toilette. Blade followed him inside and grabbed the back of his head. This time, he rams the guy's face into the toilet bowl. He reaches up with his free hand and yanks on the flush handle. The guy gurgles under water, thrashes his arms, and he struggles to get free. After a minute had passed, Blade let him up for a single gulp of air. Then he shoves his face into the commode again. Another flush followed.
The fourth guy entered the crowded stall, grabs him by his shoulders, and he tries to pull Blade off his buddy. Blade kicks backward and strikes the guy in the groin. The man howls in pain, bent over, and vomited into a bathroom trashcan. Blade let go of the guy still leaning over a commode. He stood and turned around in a tight circle. He stutter-stepped while keeping his fists clinched, up and ready, like a boxer. He circles while checking all around him for any more sneak attacks. The whipped frat boys stay down this time, but they are all observing him with uneasy side looks while nursing their injuries.
A steward enters the men's restroom, and then back peddles away letting the door swing shut. He seems not to want any part of this fight, and he dashes off to get some help. Sure there weren't going to be any more threats, Blade let his fists relax, and his arms drop to his sides.
“Let this be a lesson to you young men. Always be courteous to ladies, and do make an effort to honor your elders. If I see any of you vandalizing or making any more trouble on this ship, I won't hesitate to throw you overboard. Any questions?” Blade glowers at each man in turn.
The men who were conscious, and could still answer him, shake their heads side to side. Their faces remain grim, and they all appear to regard him with a mutual respect.
Blade left the four subdued men and strolls back into the workout room.
“I heard a loud noise and a scuffle,” Ginger said. She has a worried look on her face.
“It’s nothing. One of those college kids slipped and fell in the bathroom. That’s all. I helped him up, and I notified a ship steward to fetch a doctor.”
“Those boys should be more careful, and watch out for spills on those slippery wet tiles.”
“I warned them already. They said they’d be more careful from now on, and watch what they say…er…I mean watch where they’re going. Hey. I’m getting pretty hungry. Why don't we go somewhere topside, and scrounge up some breakfast.”
“Sure. I’m famished. This sea air's given me a rip-roaring appetite.”
They left the workout area and head for the main dining room. They pass a couple of stewards who are rushing to get somewhere in a big hurry. They're heading in the opposite direction towards the steam and sauna area. They ignore Blade and Ginger as they push forward and pass them up.
The cruise ship has three or four restaurants, fore and aft, serving hot meals twenty-four hours a day. Most passengers eat several times each day, and some passengers eat like there’s no tomorrow. Meals are free and included in the cost of each cruise ticket. Passengers wanted to take advantage of that particular onboard luxury. They desired to get more than their monies worth. A few of them wanted to eat and sleep all day long. A few passengers only wanted to drink copious amounts of free alcohol, gamble in casinos all night long, and sleep off their hangovers all the next day.
Blade and Ginger enter the cafeteria, after standing in a long line for about fifteen minutes. There's an embarrassment of riches displayed before them. Enough food to feed a platoon. On one side, there are people queuing up for egg omelets made to order. On the other side, people are lining up in front of carving tables. Servers are dressed all in white and wearing tall chef's hats. They stand at the ready, and they use sharp knives and tongs to cleave into massive slabs of ham or roast beef.
Blade spun around in a slow circle. He's somewhat bewildered, and he took in several buffet tables laden with every conceivable pastry. They're displayed in rows upon rows of descending tiers. Steam tables offer scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and biscuits. Refrigerated counters display a cornucopia of fresh fruit and other delights. The aroma of fresh coffee brewing is intoxicating.
They both grab a plate, and each stands in a different line. They make futile attempts to be conscientious and show some restraint. But they succumb to temptation and pile their plates high. They find a table for two located near a window and sit across from each other. Their table's adorned with a centerpiece of fresh cut flowers; it's surface is covered with a fine linen table cloth. Cloth napkins held bundled silverware.
Ginger sips orange juice and grins across the table at her new husband. He's sitting nonplussed behind a platter; that's piled with pancakes, strawberries and several strips of crisp bacon.
Ginger leans forward and whispers, "That big lady over there hip checked me when I reached for a croissant." She covered her mouth with her napkin and giggles.
"I know. It's like a feeding frenzy in here, "Blade whispers back before folding a buttered pancake into his mouth. He glances up in time to see two uniformed men entering the dining room. He recognizes one of the stewards from earlier who'd run for help after the scuffle at the gym. He chews his food slow and observes the steward scanning the room, and then pointing at him. The stewards stroll over to their table, nodding to other patrons as they pass. They seemed non-threatening and were even smiling.
One steward stands at attention upon arrival at their table, and he addresses Blade directly without any introduction. "The ship's Captain sent us to find you, sir. He requests your presence as soon as possible. He said he'd like to have a private word with you in his stateroom."
Blade regards the stewards with casual suspicion while Ginger gapes and sputters in astonishment.
"But we've just sat down to eat our breakfast," she stammers. "Can't it wait a few more minutes?"
She glances over at Blade with a helpless look for his support.
Blade places a reassuring hand on her stiffened shoulder. That's alright honey. I'm feeling a bit queasy anyway. Actually I'm not feeling hungry right now. I might have a little touch of sea-sickness. Can we meet up back at our cabin after I have a quick chat with our Captain? He's a very busy man, and I don't want to keep him waiting."
Ginger raises an eyebrow and glares at him. Blade stands and joins the men as they turn around and depart.
Blade glanced back at his flabbergasted bride. He grinned and blew her a kiss in farewell.
Ginger fumed, and she seemed flustered. Not only have these men interrupted their breakfast, but they nor her husband has offered any apologies or explanations. Blade didn't even seem surprised at the intrusion. And he appeared to know what's happening. And then he left her all alone here without even filling her in.
"He's going to have some explaining to do later," she mutters under her breath. She used her fork on her stuffed omelet with a stabbing motion.
Sahib glances over his shoulder somewhat bemused. He watches the multicolored bus he’d just exited vanish into a whirlwind of red dust. It had brought him to this point after jouncing hundreds of miles over deeply-rutted-dirt-roads, littered with potholes. He’d been traveling for days now, by plane, train, and at last by bus. He’s presently thousands of miles from where he’d started on this crazy journey. The upstate New York mansion he’d grown up in, and the requisite lifestyle he’d gotten used to, and come to expect, are far away. And somehow his former lavish existence seems like it had all been merely a beautiful dreamscape or at least a fuzzy memory.
He’d already forgotten what it felt like to sleep in a comfortable bed, to eat hot food, or even just speak or hear the English language spoken. He might never get out the miasma of scents coating the inside of his nostrils and lungs. Those smells propagated by the sour fragrances lingering in busses and trains. Those local conveyances always filled with unwashed people, goats, pigs, and chickens. He hung back a bit and watched until the bus disappeared over the horizon, at last dissolving into a shimmering mirage.
Abruptly, the sounds of silence swallowed over him, and he began to hear the thump of his heartbeat. There's also a rhythmic swishing of his breathing. He squints against a fierce glare. The noon sun is climbing to its zenith. The air around him felt hot, sticky and redolent with the baked aromas of the desert. It has a faint smell of burnt fruit after a wildfire in an orchard. That scent wafts on weak breezes, like the stench of death. He imagines it smells like what leaks out after an archaeologist opens the entrance to an ancient-sealed-Egyptian-sarcophagus.
He gazes all about him, but can see nothing for miles. There were no signs of civilization, no forests, no trees, just a vast landscape of undulating sand dunes and the ubiquitous scrub brush. The sky is cerulean blue, cloudless and unblemished by city skylines. Much of Somalia is just as it was thousands of years ago. Untouched, and largely unseen by modern man. Unmolested so far by the inevitable encroachment of modernization and civilization. It's a third world country, which seems stuck in time, and unchanged by commerce and technology.
Earlier, he'd asked for directions to Eyl. The grizzled bus driver waved his gnarled hand with a vague motion towards the Eastern coastline. He’d grunted and muttered that there’s no public transportation into the city. His grin was toothless and unapologetic when he added that it’d be a mere twelve-mile hike to Eyl's city limits.
Sahib hoists his backpack onto his shoulder, grimacing at the weight. He’d need to lighten his load somehow. He flung it back down on the hardscrabble road and kneeled down to search its contents. He tossed books and magazines over his shoulder to the side of the road. He didn’t think he’d need any of them soon. He didn’t consider it as littering. He assumed someone would come by sooner or later and pick them up. If nothing else, the paper could be used as fuel for a fire, or perhaps as toilet paper. ‘Toilet paper. It's been quite a while since he’d seen a two-ply role,’ he thought with wistfulness.
He also considers tossing his iPad and his cell phone. An electronic device wasn’t going to be very useful where he’s heading. Not much chance for a Wi-Fi-Hot-Spot, or any public internet access, or cell service for that matter. Yesterday, he’d utilized an internet café to send an Email to his adopted parents before he left the larger city of Mogadishu. He'd wrote them saying that he's doing well. He'd said he would send frequent updates to keep them informed of his whereabouts whenever he could. They are under the mistaken assumption he is backpacking across Eastern Europe. Little did they know he’d changed his current travel plans to embark on this personal quest. He kept it a secret from his friends and everyone else in his travel group.
His cell phone's useless out here in no-mans-land. No cell towers in sight for hundreds of miles. He wraps his electronic devices in a newspaper and buries them in a deep hole he‘d scooped out in the sand with his bare hands. He could always retrieve them later if he came back this way some day. Soon, he hoped to return to this very spot to await a bus for a return trip to Mogadishu. He's hopeful that this time he'd be accompanied by his twin brother Hamish as his traveling companion. He marked the electronics burial with a small pile of rocks. He uses a branch of a sagebrush to sweep the ground to cover up his tracks.
When he's satisfied the backpack is as light as it’s ever going to get, he hefts the weight. Still, it feels a bit heavy, but it'll have to do for now. He takes a long swig of tepid water from his canteen and smacks his lips. He tastes the grit. Sand gets into everything, and it rubbed his skin raw and chafed where tiny sand particles settle into any available bodily crevasses.
Sweat trickles down the back of his neck and blots his already damp shirt. It's torn and tattered, as is his trousers. He's wearing a pair of leather sandals; the soles made from tire treads. He looks like everyone else out here in no-man's-land. He’d given away all of his brand new traveling clothes, after swapping them for a street beggar's ragged clothing. They're ripped, and there are many holes fraying at the edges. He didn’t want to stand out from the others, and he especially didn't want to look like a wealthy college kid. His natural dark skin wouldn’t be enough camouflage to keep him from being targeted by a roving band of thieves. If bandits happened upon him walking alone on this road, they’d most likely ignore him, supposing he's probably poor, and not carrying anything of value. There’s no police nor anyone around to hear his pleas for help if he's being mugged or worse.
Much of this country is primitive, untamed, savage and lawless. It is largely without a functioning government. Except in the larger cities. Out here, it's much like the Wild West in the early days of America, and it’s been this way for almost twenty years. Left on his own out here, he has to rely on his basic instincts, and a willful determination to survive. He needs to blend in with these local indigenous people, so he won't stand out or attract unwanted attention. Especially going where he's going. Eyl. The Somali Pirate capital of the world.
Abshir relaxed, and placed his arm behind his head. He reclined with legs outstretched on a canopy-shaded-chaise-lounge. He is enjoying an aperitif outside on his veranda. He gripped a wine bottle's curved neck and took a sip of red wine straight from the spout. He gazed from his rooftop redoubt towards the ocean. The sun is descending behind him, and there’s a multicolored tableau forming in a cloud bank hugging the Eastern horizon. He glanced right and left, and as expected, he observed not one brave sole strolling the beaches for miles. Most of the villagers of Eyl are snug in tight inside their hovels. Nightfall isn’t the best time to venture outside around these parts. As per usual, there are no foreign tourists in sight. There never are any visitors around here. Everyone living in Eyl is either a dreaded pirate or a fisherman.
‘They’d all been fishermen at one point,’ he mused. Now, these once plentiful fishing waters were almost fished out. Foreign commercial fishing vessels have plundered these coastal waters for twenty or more years until not much has remained. Pollution, from illegal chemical waste,
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Publication Date: 12-28-2015
All Rights Reserved