Excerpt // The Pinebox Vendetta by Jeff Bond
Jamie Gallagher stood beside the pirate at the skiff’s rail, the African sea thick on his skin. Neither man could see the other in the moonless night, but Jamie smelled the khat the Somali never stopped chewing—sweetly sharp, a scent that made Jamie feel part cleansed and part crazed.
“The money is ready,” said the pirate named Abdi. “My men have packed the briefcase.”
“Wanaagsan.” Jamie ducked his head in gratitude. “You believe the general will accept a briefcase?”
“This is the usual way, yes. It will be checked for explosives with X-ray and IMS swabs.”
“Also, the general will insist on verifying the amount before the release occurs.”
“His men are going to count ten million dollars?” Jamie asked.
The Somali spat khat leaves into the sea. “He has machines. The machines check by weight.”
Jamie exhaled, pushing his own breath into the hot, still air. The money would weigh out.
The money wasn’t the trick.
Abdi continued, “Once the amount is verified, the general will call his people in the jungle by satphone, and they will free your journalist.”
“Immediately? I’ll need confirmation from HD before we leave the yacht.”
“That is the arrangement.”
Jamie mopped his brow. Acting wasn’t his strength, and he hoped his insistence on this procedural point was convincing. In fact, Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) knew nothing about tomorrow. There would be no representative at the hand-off spot, and the French journalist—whose reporting on minority suffrage truly had opened the world’s eyes—would not be freed.
This was a regret. But Jamie Gallagher had lived with worse.
He said, “I’ll be X-rayed, too?”
“At a minimum. You should expect a body cavity search.”
“Fine.” In his years advocating for peace and public health around sub-Saharan Africa, Jamie had had his cheeks probed, his neck magnetically combed, and the arches of his feet flayed. “I suppose the general’s in no position to be trusting.”
The pirate took a while to respond. Was he eyeing Jamie in the dark? Signaling to his men back on the mothership? Jamie’s statement had been obvious and shouldn’t have invoked offense.
Since joining the pirates at Merca, a white beach paradise down the coast from Mogadishu, Jamie had detected hostility—even after paying their exorbitant convoy fee. Abdi himself had been civil enough, but his three young lieutenants, after pointedly using their left hands to shake Jamie’s, had glared at him with undisguised contempt.
He understood this. A westerner waltzes onto their ship with unimaginable stores of cash—cash that, in a matter of hours, will bring them into contact with the most wanted war criminal on the planet. Naturally, they resented him.
He was what, five years older than them? With his bandanna and dishwater-blond hair?
Abdi said, “This is a great risk for us. We have earned the general’s esteem. We do not wish to squander it.”
Jamie heard the clench in the man’s jaw. “I assure you, I will comply with every procedure he or you tell me to follow.”
General Mahad and these Somali pirates fought on the same side of many issues. Both wanted the ruling Muslims out of Puntland. They didn’t care that the Muslims had remade the conflict-ravaged region into a prosperous enclave, introducing compulsory education and a foodstuff-based living wage.
For the pirates, the problem was their strict, Islam-centric brand of law and order, which had made the coastal waters harder to pillage.
General Mahad’s beef was simple: the Muslims had replaced him in power.
He’d ruled Puntland for a decade, enriching himself and his cronies using any resource available—khat, guns, people. When word of his atrocities leaked, international pressure mounted for a free election. The general agreed after a period of stonewalling, believing he could manipulate the results. When Al Jama-ah won anyway, the general stole all he could in the weeks before yielding control.
According to a local guide Jamie trusted, the general toured polling stations his last day with a machete, taking three fingers from each precinct leader.
“If I lose next time,” he told them, “you lose the rest.”
Though he retained a few loyalist strongholds like the one holding the French journalist, General Mahad himself lived on a yacht, moving constantly to evade capture. The Hague had convicted him last year in absentia.
Now Jamie asked, “Who’ll be coming aboard with me?”
“Me and Josef,” Abdi said. “We are known to the general.”
“Will you be armed?”
“No. He will search us, too.”
Jamie shuffled in place, the skiff feeling suddenly unsteady beneath him. “I—er, I hope it’ll be okay that I bring a gift. Akpeteshie. I was told it is the general’s favorite liquor?”
The pirate groaned pleasurably. “Akpeteshie, yes.”
“I thought we might share a drink as a token of good faith.”
“The bottle is factory-sealed?”
“The general will like this. The general believes in courtesy.”
Several retorts came to mind at the ludicrous idea this butcher had any claim on civility, but Jamie swallowed them. He removed a pair of night-vision goggles from his rucksack. Before looking himself, he offered them to Abdi. Abdi waved them off as though the technology were frivolous.
Jamie scanned the horizon, right to left, left to right. The skiff’s sway seemed to increase. The eye cups stuck to his sweaty forehead.
The smell of khat, which hadn’t bothered him before, grated now, like sugar grit needling into his nose and eardrums. He felt the pressure of this place keenly. Every actor—man, woman, or child—who entered this stretch of ocean would be girded to fight. They must be. Choice never came into it.
A shape appeared on the horizon. Jamie thumbed his focus wheel until red blurs resolved to running lights.
“The general,” Abdi said.
Adrenaline jolted through Jamie. Here was a ghost vessel—a vessel many militaries of the world would board on sight, and one the United States wouldn’t think twice about blasting to smithereens with a drone strike.
The yacht grew larger in the greenish display. Jamie screwed on a bulky magnifier lens and was able to make out guards on the gunwale, ambling, AK-47s on their shoulders. The yacht was perhaps twenty meters. Several figures were sprawled out on deck, sleeping in the open for the heat.
Jamie raised the goggles, thinking to find the general on the bridge. The cockpit windows were smoked—opaque from outside and surely bulletproof.
He panned back down. The craft made a leeward turn, and he glimpsed new figures at the base of the pilothouse. These were prone like the others but smaller—a dozen in a line, little pulled-apart commas. Most of them were still, but one squirmed restlessly.
Jamie’s stomach shrank to a cold fist.
Excerpt from The Pinebox Vendetta by Jeff Bond. Copyright 2020 by Jeff Bond. Reproduced with permission from Jeff Bond. All rights reserved.
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Jeff Bond is a Kansas native and graduate of Yale University. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Michigan, and belongs to the International Thriller Writers Association.
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