Sarawak

A young Indonesian boy becomes embroiled in a modern day pirate gang terrorizing the seas around the Strait of Malacca

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1. Musa

 

Musa Osman sat nervously in the smoke filled booth, surrounded by Deepak’s entourage. Deepak himself, bejewelled, sucking enthusiastically on a clove cigarette was holding forth whilst two karaoke hostesses sat on either side of him stroking his thigh and gazing adoringly.

Musa took a long swallow from the warm bottle of beer he had been nursing ever since they’d arrived at the amusingly named “Lucy’s Oarhouse”, deep in the Nagoya entertainment district of Bantam.

Tonight he had been told they would all get “happy, happy”; buoyed by their recent successes Deepak’s crew had begun to believe whole-heartedly in his professed magical ability.

“He can cast a spell to become invisible”, Rizal had whispered to him.

“He is bullet proof”, Buyong had said.

Musa himself was sceptical. Admittedly, Deepak had an air of menace that set him apart from the others but at first glance he looked like every other middle-aged Malaysian man. He was short, only five feet tall, wiry build, close cropped hair that was greying at the temples, thin moustache. He wore a Manchester United football shirt and his fingers glittered with jewellery. Only the tattoos, which crept out from beneath his clothing belied anything out of the ordinary.

But it was when he spoke that Musa could tell he held the loyalty of every man at the table. They drank in every word that dripped from his honeyed tongue like thirsty dogs.

Not for the first time Musa wondered what the hell he’d got himself involved with.

His eyes flicked to Buyong who was listening with rapt attention to the words of Deepak. Good old Buyong; sweating lightly in the harsh neon glare of the karaoke bar, his good natured smile widened to a grin when he caught Musa studying him. He nodded his head in Deepak’s direction as if to say “Isn’t he everything I told you he would be?”

Musa raised his beer bottle in acknowledgment and drained the last of its lukewarm contents. Musa, sixteen years old, orphaned at the age of eight had now been drinking alcohol for half his life. He remembered the first glass of tuak his Uncle Sani had thrust into his hands as he sat shell-shocked on the bare floor of his two-roomed shack. The night his parents’ bodies had been found.

“Drink” he’d been ordered. And he had but he’d never found the thick, syrupy taste to his liking.

He lent forward to place the bottle on the table in front of him, overflowing with empty glasses and full to the brim ashtrays. The movement caught Deepak’s eye and he paused mid tirade. He took a long pull on his Hero cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring across the table towards Musa. There was a lull in the conversation as everyone watched its journey in fascination. As the ring hovered unbroken in front of him Musa snatched it from the air with a sudden grin.

“Cool trick, Deepak.”

There was no reply. Holding his chin cupped in one hand he examined Musa as if seeing him for the first time. As the silence grew longer Musa began to feel uncomfortable in the face of his unflinching gaze. He cleared his throat and pointed to the open packet of Hero’s.

“Maybe you could teach me?”

A ghost of a smile played on Deepak’s lips.

“Teach you, eh? ” he intoned slowly. He made no movement to pass Musa one of his cigarettes; instead he broke the growing tension by slapping the two waitresses playfully on their bare arms.

“More drinks” he ordered “and bring me the karaoke menu for I hope our new recruit will entertain us with a song later.”

As the two women glided away in a bustle of bare flesh and sweet perfume, Deepak patted the empty space on the couch to his left.

“Come, sit closer my new friend for we have much business to discuss.”

Musa rose from his seat whilst Buyong beamed encouragement. Over the speakers, the first notes of a song began to play as the words were projected onto a large screen. A waitress approached another booth with a microphone and shortly in a pleasing tenor came the sound of someone crooning an Elvis classic. “We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out…”

A few hours later and Musa’s eyelids had begun to droop. Buyong had slipped him a half tablet of ecstasy on one trip to the toilet together, the effects of which he could now feel prickling between his eyes. Musa suspected that Buyong and the others were also snorting crystal meth but he was secretly glad Buyong wasn’t sharing any of it with him. Back at the table, Deepak was keeping his troops fuelled with a continuous supply of drinks and any hint of anyone slowing down was met with a clap on the back and a cry of derision from his fellows. This blur of hedonism or “happy, happy” was a just reward for the efforts of his loyal soldiers, Deepak explained.

“For have I not always been good to you all?” His eyes blazed as he searched the faces of the men around him. There were murmurs of assent and glasses raised in salute.

“Have I not tried to teach you as a Bomoh should? Have I not protected the Red Devil’s through the correct use of jampi-jampi so that we may sail unseen?” The murmurs grew louder. The eyes of his men sparkled with a fervour beyond the mere presence of ice in their veins.

“And in all that time, in all of our endeavours, only one man has fallen. Only one man has been lost, cut down before my very eyes by that anak haram”, he paused to spit deliberately on the floor “that bastard captain of the Fukushima Spirit. My own brother, cruelly taken from me. But I made them pay did I not?”

The bloodthirsty cries from around the table began to attract attention from the customers in the neighbouring booths and the karaoke waitresses. Each bearing a round badge with their number on it, the women began to whisper nervously. Many of them would be expected to attend to the baser needs of these men as the night wore on and they feared for their safety.

“But enough. For we are not here only to honour the memory of Wira, my brother who was indeed a hero to us all but also to welcome his replacement.” With a sudden snake like movement he wrapped his arm around Musa’s shoulders. As he pulled him closer his shirtsleeve drew back to reveal a tattoo; ancient Malay words entwined around the form of a scorpion. The words of a spell, Musa realised through the fog of ecstasy.

“Gentlemen, today we welcome a new member to our family.” Around the table the men began to cheer and Musa blushed fiercely. Deepak grabbed Musa’s cheeks with his free hand and drew their faces level.

“And what is it you want to become?” he demanded.

“A lanun” Musa whispered.

“Speak louder boy”

“A pirate. A pirate like you.”                                                                 

 *

Musa’s parents had been fishermen and had died, according to his Uncle Sani, when a phenomenon known locally as the haze had caused them to run aground on one of the hundreds of uninhabited mangrove islands dotted around the Strait of Malacca. Their boat had been found, drifting and anchorless by the Malaysian coastal police the next day but it had taken nearly a week before their corpses had washed up, bloated and half-eaten in the nets of another local fisherman.

Up until his sixteenth birthday Musa had fished, swam and more importantly sailed the waters around Penang Island as a deck-hand hired out by his Uncle; scratching a meagre living for them both but gaining an affinity with the Strait which unfortunately his parents had never quite managed. At least, if Sani was to be believed.

Upon the death of his brother, Sani had inherited both his fishing boat, the Sarawak and his shell-shocked son to care for. Not knowing what to do with either he had promptly lost the Sarawak in a card game and within a week had set Musa to work with its new owner. Musa, at the tender age of eight knew the peculiarities and shortcomings of the Sarawak intimately; it had been his second home for most of his short life after all. A fact that it’s new captain, a severe but essentially benign man named Sulong had recognized immediately.

But it wasn’t just Musa’s familiarity with the Sarawak that made him such a good fishermen. In all his days sailing the Strait, Sulong had never seen anyone so at home on the water. By the age of ten, Musa had become so invaluable to the success of a good catch that on the few days a year that he was too sick to put to sea, Sulong would give the rest of his three man crew the day off to visit the local whorehouse or spend with their families (whichever they preferred).

Aged twelve Musa had met his first pirate. Under the mid-day sun a German freighter in the Strait had successfully repelled a small fibreglass boat manned by a five-man team of pirates, which had launched an attack from a nearby island off the coast of Bantam. The attack had been particularly ill prepared; not only had they chosen to target a tanker with the sun high in the sky, blinded by the glare from the water as they pulled alongside, they had reckoned without the German cargo company providing automatic weapons to the crew to keep their insurance premiums to a minimum. A single well placed shot had taken out the fuel tank on the pirate vessel, killing three of them instantly. The two survivors had clung to the wreckage of their boat in the hot sun. The tanker had maintained a steady twelve knots throughout the entire attack and the captain, for fear of being detained and losing valuable transit time, had decided not to alert the port authorities. Hell, if it meant leaving two murdering lanuns to drown slowly in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes then too bad, he wouldn’t be losing any sleep over it.

Musa had watched all this unfold from the deck of the Sarawak in amazement. The Sarawak had been one of four small fishing boats in the immediate vicinity when the pirates had made their ill-fated boarding attempt but was the only one that had stayed to fish out the survivors. Sulong, scowling and muttering curses under his breath had ordered his crew to pull alongside the burning wreckage as soon as the tanker had disappeared into the distance.

The screams of one of the men had abruptly ceased. His face, horribly disfigured by a spray of burning diesel fuel had sunk beneath the water before Sulong’s outstretched arms could reach him. Amazingly the last survivor had managed to clamber aboard under his own steam. As he lay on the foredeck, chest heaving, clutching an open wound that was bleeding heavily on his right leg, Sulong and his crew surrounded him. The man, turning towards them had somehow managed to return Sulong’s steely gaze with a laboured smile.

“Buyong, you bloody fool” Sulong had growled. “This is the last time I save your miserable hide.”

Buyong had swept his infectious grin across the hostile faces towering above him and with a heave of his stomach promptly vomited over their feet.

“Musa!” Sulong had barked. But Musa knowing his place aboard the Sarawak had already run to fetch a mop and a bucket of water to clean up the mess.                    

*

The morning after Musa’s initiation into the Red Devil’s he awoke on the floor of Buyong’s apartment to the crashing guitar riffs of Malaysian heavy metal band, Blackfire. Blacklisted by the government for “causing damage to people’s minds”, Malaysia’s top Muslim clerics had recently decided to ban all black metal music at a meeting of the National Fatwa Council.

Never one to conform, Buyong had always delighted in shocking his more puritan neighbours by playing Death Metal, Grind Core and Punk at all hours of the day. Bantam, being part of Indonesia was slightly more tolerant of Buyong’s taste in music than the Malaysian authorities across the water in Singapore. This had only changed recently however. In 1993, a Metallica concert in Jakarta had erupted in violence and the controlling Suharto regime had responded by banning all heavy metal bands and live concerts for five years.

Musa peered out blearily from underneath the blanket Buyong had thrown over him and groaned as his head throbbed in time with the music.

“Wake up little man”, Buyong called cheerfully from the kitchen “We need to begin your training in earnest today.”

Musa stumbled to his feet, still fully dressed and followed the smell of roti canai, Buyong’s famous griddle cooked pancakes, into the next room. His stomach growled appreciatively as Buyong served up a plateful and he flopped into a chair at the kitchen table with a sigh.

“Firstly, big man” he said grumpily “I’m pretty sure there’s absolutely nothing you can teach me about sailing a pancung. And secondly” He paused as Buyong ladled a helping of vegetables onto the side of his plate. “Mmm, thanks. And secondly, how can you even think straight after last night? I don’t remember leaving the club or getting back here at all.”

Buyong eased himself into a chair opposite and sipped a frothy cup of pulled tea. His trademark grin seemed a little forced this morning and he shifted his enormous bulk uncomfortably as he watched Musa

. “Little man, look around you.” Musa paused with a forkful of food in mid air. It was a surprise to hear the note of concern in Buyong’s voice.

“I’ve come a long way since you found me floating in the waters around Penang, have I not?” He waved one of his meaty paws absently as if to indicate his newfound affluence.

“All this comes at a price Musa and I feel it would be remiss of me if I did not explain what it may cost you in return. I recommended you to Deepak because of your skill as a tekong. I have never met anyone so capable of handling a pancung in all my life, especially considering your age. But Musa”, and with this Buyong leaned forward and grasped the young boy’s wrist gently “you must understand that piloting the pancung may not be your only duty. Our aim is largely to frighten, yes but on occasion it has been necessary to use our weapons for more than show. Do you understand?”

His face seemed to implore the boy. Turn away now it said, go back to your old life and forget about this. Musa chewed thoughtfully and remembered how he’d had similar sentiments yesterday evening. But that was before he’d heard Deepak talk. Musa was no soft touch; he’d grown up quickly having to care for himself and his good-for-nothing Uncle but last night he’d felt himself drawn to Deepak. He’d seen the faces of the men around the table and had longed to be one of them. To be part of something.

He pushed away his empty plate.

“I understand” he said, “I really do. And besides, I only need to do one job and the money should be enough to pay off the people that Sani owes…”

With a crash, Buyong’s fist smashed angrily onto the table.

“Screw Sani” he shouted, “you should leave that alcoholic free-loader to rot. If that’s all this is about, for you to pay off Sani’s pathetic gambling debts then I’ll lend you the money right now.” He reached into his pocket and threw a heap of 100,000 rupiah bills in front of him.

“Take it”, he ordered. For a moment there was silence. Musa pushed back his chair and stood up, ignoring the money.

“Come on big man, we’re wasting time” he said, “I’m ready and you know it.”                   

*

As a child Deepak’s eyes had shone with excitement whenever he heard his grandfather’s croaky voice recount the horrors that foreign sailors had faced in the Strait at the hands of its noble inhabitants. His younger brother Wira, a sensitive boy who took after his kind-hearted father would often bury his head in his mother’s lap at the more gruesome parts of his grandfather’s stories. To Deepak however, these tales of gunpowder, opium, gold and slaves captured his heart and stirred his juvenile imagination.

For hundreds of years, this narrow stretch of water between western Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra had offered the most direct route between India and China. By its very nature, the confined 550-mile length forced ships that passed along it to cut their speed considerably and thus left them open to attack from skilled raiders in fast, manoeuvrable craft such as pancungs. One of Deepak’s favourite stories was about the so-called King of the Coco’s.

“The Coco’s islands lie way out to sea, a thousand miles or more from Singapore” his grandfather would invariably begin, as he settled himself comfortably into his chair. His white hair stuck out at crazy angles and his gnarled hands, liver-spotted and shaking would dance in the air, the more animated his story-telling became.

“To this day they are still ruled by a white man who calls himself their King. No one had ever lived on the Coco’s before but all that was to change when a ship, captained by a merchant called Hare, landed on the biggest of these islands. His ship had travelled from England to trade in the East where spices were cheap and plentiful and the Coco’s offered a perfect place to stockpile his goods. Hare and his crew made their fortunes in the waters of the Indian Ocean and upon news from England there was a shortage of spices, Hare’s new ship the Borneo had been put to sea with its hold bulging to the seams, ready to make a profit. Hare himself had elected to stay behind with a few men and in his place he sent his second-in-command, a man called John Clunies-Ross on the long journey back to England. A year later, the Borneo returned accompanied by many more potential settlers to find the Coco’s islands much changed. Hare had grown mad in his isolation and set himself up as a self-styled King with a harem of women he had gathered from Sumatra, Borneo, Bali, Java, Celebes, China, New Guinea, South Africa and India.

Disgusted with his former captain, Clunies-Ross had settled on a nearby island but nature soon took its course and it was not long before his men, frustrated by their lonely months at sea had made a raid on their neighbour’s harem and banished the would-be King, syphilitic and raving from his island paradise.

Over time, Clunies-Ross grew rich and comfortable in this utopia and decided to return to England for the rest of his family. But as the Borneo navigated the narrow waters of the Strait of Malacca it was attacked. The pirates, of which my own father was one, were protected by a spell cast by a powerful bomoh which allowed them to board the ship unseen and soon they had rounded up its crew and forced them to kneel on the deck with a sharp parang at their necks.

The chief of the pirates called Awang was much feared, even amongst his own men.

“Show me where the silver is hidden and I will let you live.” he ordered the captain but John Clunies-Ross professed to be unafraid. Awang cast his eye over the cowering passengers and spotted a young boy who looked suspiciously like the captain himself.

“If you don’t fear for your own life then what of your son’s?” he demanded. Still, the sullen captain refused to betray the location of the ships bullion. He stubbornly refused to say anything even as he watched the boy lashed to the ship’s anchor and thrown overboard into the deep.

Awang despairing of ever forcing the information from him resorted to cutting off the captain’s fingers joint by joint. It was only after he’d finished on his right hand and was about to begin on his left that Clunies-Ross relented with a scream of despair.

“I’m a man of my word,” said Awang as he prepared to cast off with the ship’s valuables “and so I shall let you live.” And with that he left the King of the Coco’s to make his way home, minus five fingers and one son.”

“And the moral of the story is?” he inquired of his two attentive grandchildren. Deepak, who had heard the story countless times before, spoke up immediately before his brother Wira.

“At sea, the lanun is the real king, grandfather”. “That’s right” chuckled the old man “ and for a lanun to be successful he must not only be feared but also believed.”                    

*

And so it began at last. Musa sat confidently at the rudder of the pancung, its engine emitting a soft putt-putt sound as he eased it across the dark waters of the mangrove swamp. He’d tuned the engine himself, delicately dismantling, cleaning and oiling each of its constituent parts. Once complete, its sound resembled a purring cat and it no longer coughed out a billow of evil smelling blue smoke. He’d treated Buyong to a nail biting ride yesterday when he’d pushed the boat to its limit; the look of terror on his face had been a picture as the pancung had hurtled across the choppy waters on the return to Bantam.

“Got to open her up” he’d shouted as the spray whipped them both in the face, “who knows when we may need to make a quick getaway?”

He glanced at the two silent rows of men sat in front of him. Deepak, Buyong, Rizal, Mohammed, Sharif, Satria and himself. Six men and one boy.

Rizal sat oiling the blade of his parang and its keen edge glittered in the moonlight. On blankets at their feet lay an assortment of automatic weapons, including the dull grey cylindrical tube of a grenade launcher.

“More for show than anything else,” Muhammed had explained as he’d hefted it aboard “but it works. I’ve tested it myself.” He’d mimed an explosion with his hands and patted the tube with obvious affection.

Deepak’s face glowed in the light of his mobile phone. One of his men had infiltrated the crew of the target vessel at its last port of call. He’d been hired to help out in the engine room and was currently using a smuggled aboard GPS phone to relay the ship’s position by text message. He clicked the clamshell shut and his face returned to darkness.

“Take us out two miles from shore, Musa. No need to go too fast, we have plenty of time.”

Twenty minutes later Musa cut the engine completely and the boat drifted silently in the open water. The sea was calm tonight and overhead the stars shone in a cloudless sky. Was this down to Deepak’s much vaunted abilities as a bomoh, Musa wondered? The weather conditions were perfect. Traffic was light on the Strait too; in the distance Musa could make out the shape of a small fishing boat but other than that the Strait was preternaturally quiet.

Under his feet lay shafts of bamboo stalk, stripped of all their shoots. They would tie numerous stalks together depending on the height of the ship they wanted to board. Lashed to the top of them, at an angle would be a mangrove root, hewn into a spike. Musa would manoeuvre the boat right up to the stern of their target and the spike would be hooked onto the deck from below. The natural joints in the stalk offered a much better grip than rope and allowed the men to climb, by clasping with their feet and driving their bodies upwards inchworm fashion.

“The tekong has the most difficult job of all,” Buyong had told him once. “To hide us from the crew the pancung must sail in the hole. The hole exists at the stern of a ship near the rudder and propeller.  The curve of the steel hull there will shield us from anyone on deck but the water is extremely rough and holding the boat steady whilst we climb aboard requires a lot of skill.”

Privately Musa thought that boarding the ship, subduing the crew and retrieving the payroll was a more daunting prospect. He would not be joining Deepak and the others this time. Once they were on board and the ship’s engines had been cut, the pancung would be secured safely to the railings with rope. Musa would be required to remain behind, ready to hack through the rope with his parang and cast off immediately on the Devil’s return.

In the darkness, Deepak felt the vibration of his phone in his hand.

“Get ready,” he murmured.                    

*

Musa flinched and ducked down lower at the helm of the pancung. The tanker loomed like a colossus above his head and over the tannoy he could hear the screams of the captain pleading for mercy. There followed a long blood-curdling wail punctuated by the retort of what sounded like small arms fire. Moments later, Deepak’s voice boomed across the ship.

“Crew of the Saradukar, surrender yourselves or your captain dies. All remaining crewmembers must report on deck immediately. We have the ship’s manifest and know exactly how many people are employed aboard this vessel. Do not try my patience and you have my word that none of you will be harmed.”

There was a click, followed by a moment of laboured breathing and then a short burst of what sounded like Japanese as the captain made a final plea to his men. In the silence that followed Musa could hear his heart thumping loudly in his chest and he realised he had been holding his breath since the screams began. He expelled the hot air in a long, painful burst and peered up fearfully at the railings where Buyong had secured the boat. All was dark and in the shadows there danced hidden dangers; crewmembers carrying sharpened blades seemed to creep ever closer, ready to leap down and hack him limb from limb. He gripped the hilt of his parang tightly and moaned. Why had he agreed to this madness? He had been swept away by the ramblings of a lunatic and now here he was, alone with only the light of the moon to see by, tethered to the great hulk of this ship.

What was that? A fleeting movement on deck had caught his eye. He could have sworn that a pale hand had reached out of the darkness above and touched the mooring rope before retreating. Should he call out? No, he would betray his position. He hunkered down even further. A bead of sweat rolled lazily down the side of his face and his tongue snaked out sideways to catch it. There! There was no mistake this time, ten feet above him he could see two hands trying to unknot the rope that held the pancung to the tanker. Musa froze. What should he do? Buyong and the others had brought him along to pilot the pancung, not because of his fighting skills. He was a sixteen-year-old boy not a hardened lanun. Terror held him rooted to the spot and the scream in his throat transformed itself into a low gurgle of panic. The pale hands above eventually finished untying the rope and tossed the free end over the side where it landed in the water with a small splash. There could be no doubt that this was an escaped crewmember. He could almost appreciate the man’s plan. Without their smaller, speedier vessel to escape in, Deepak and his men would be effectively stranded on the tanker. As the pancung drifted further away from the Saradukar, Musa watched in horror as the figure of the man readied himself to jump into the water. The man was mumbling something to himself, over and over under his breath. He remained in a half crouch on the floor of the boat, hidden in the darkness when suddenly there was a shout from the ship.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

Pounding along the deck from the right came Buyong, closely followed by Mohammed. Buyong stopped and raised his automatic carbine rifle to his shoulder.

”Don’t do it,” he yelled, locking eyes with the frightened seaman but it was too late. With a strangled cry the escapee pitched forward into the icy blackness of the water ten feet below. As he disappeared out of sight, Mohammed pulled a handgun from the waistband of his jeans and began to pepper the sea with bullets. Musa felt the mosquito whine of a shot whistle past his ear and bury itself into the wooden seat next to him. He dropped to the floor of the boat and placed both hands over his head in fright.

“No, you fool, you’ll hit the fuel tank on the boat,” shouted Buyong and he turned and gripped Mohammed’s arm. Mohammed lowered the gun and swore loudly. As the pancung drifted further away from the tanker, Buyong began shouting for Musa to snap out of his stupor.

“Musa, you little shit. What’s wrong with you? Bring the boat back here now!” Musa groaned again and lifted his head slightly. He hated Buyong. It was Buyong that had gotten him into this mess in the first place.

“Muuusa! I’ll wring your neck if you don’t get your cowardly face off the floor of that boat and pull yourself together.” An edge of panic was creeping into Buyong’s voice. There was a pause of a few seconds before inexplicably they began firing again. Musa could hear the bullets plopping into the water around the boat. Was Buyong so angry with him that he wanted to shoot him?

“Musa. Musa. Get up, he’s climbing aboard!” Buyong was screaming now. Musa lifted his head cautiously and what he saw almost made him faint in terror. The escaped crewmember was almost out of the water, pulling himself onboard by the mooring rope that trailed out behind the boat. He could hear his laboured breathing, interspersed with a low, muttering sound. The words sounded familiar somehow and with a start he realised that the man was mumbling a prayer. The tanker was now over five hundred metres away and just a shape in the darkness. Musa lay paralysed with fear and he squeezed his eyes shut as the sound of the small boats unwanted guest grew nearer. On the wind, faint now he caught the sound of Buyong’s final scream. “The parang! Use your blade.”

A jolt of electricity seemed to course through Musa’s body. His fingers fastened around the weapon and a cry of rage finally escaped his lips. He jack-knifed to his feet and with one fluid motion, swung the razor sharp blade two-handed above his head and brought it whistling down into the upturned face of the escapee.

“Get off my boat!” he screamed. The man’s lower half was still in the water. The blade scythed two inches into his skull as cleanly as if it were a watermelon and then stuck fast. With a whimper, Musa let go of the parang and watched as the man’s grip loosened on the rope and he pitched backwards. The moonlight bathed the scene in an eerie glow. The man blinked once, the sword sticking out grotesquely from his forehead and then he was gone beneath the waves.                    

*

Back on board the Saradukar, Deepak’s eyes seem to glow with a murderous rage. The ship’s captain lay prostrate at his feet, badly beaten and shot in the right knee, whilst the crew knelt behind him, arms securely tied behind their backs. Musa stood trembling next to Rizal who had thrown a protective arm around his shoulders.

“They’re all here,” said Buyong, clutching the ship’s manifest. In truth he hadn’t needed it to know how many crewmembers there were. Deepak’s inside man had provided them with the correct information days earlier.

Deepak motioned to Mohammed to pass him a rifle.

“I am not a patient man,” he shouted “but I am a man of my word. My patience was tested earlier and now a man is dead. Give us what we want and I promise you we will leave you unharmed. Continue to defy us and more will die.” He nudged the captain with the tip of the gun.

“Unless you tell me the combination to the safe in your quarters, I will shoot a man at random. Do you understand?” The captain struggled upright. His ruined face stared defiantly back at Deepak. Spraying spittle and blood, he barked a short burst of Japanese and then turned his head and spat deliberately on the deck.

“Very well. You have given me your answer.” Deepak raised the rifle so that it was pointed at the captive crew behind the captain. He closed his eyes and fired a round. With a scream the captain pitched himself forward trying to stop him, wrapping his arms around Deepak’s legs. Deepak shook him off, took a step backwards and kicked him square in the face. The captain’s nose broke with a satisfying crunch. On deck, men were scrambling away from the body of Deepak’s victim and Buyong stepped forward to survey the damage. The man had fallen on his back and was breathing in short, rapid bursts. The bullet had torn a large chunk from his left shoulder and Buyong grimaced at the pieces of shattered collarbone he could see through the man’s clothing. It was messy he surmised but not fatal, at least not instantly. He could always bleed to death, of course.

“He’s alive,” he called “but he’ll need a doctor.” He bent low and patted the man’s clothing. Feeling the bulge of the phone in the man’s trouser pocket he surreptitiously removed it and placed it in his own. So this was Deepak’s stool pigeon. He felt a trace of admiration for the lengths the man was prepared to go to, to protect his identity. No one would suspect him of foul play now, not after such a carefully orchestrated display. The way Deepak had closed his eyes when he’d made the shot though. Impressive. That could only be the bomoh within him, he reasoned. The man’s eyes fluttered open briefly. He fixed Buyong with a stare and mouthed the word ‘hurry’. Buyong straightened up.

“Better get this man to the infirmary,” he said, motioning with his hand to two of the nearest crewmembers cowering nearby. He advanced on them and cut their bonds with his blade.

“Let’s go,” he barked. The men staggered to their feet and lifted the unconscious man between them. Buyong followed behind as they dragged him to the stairs leading below deck.                        

*

The captain’s quarters had been torn apart by Deepak’s men in the search for the combination to the electronic safe which sat in the corner of the room in plain view. The contents of the mahogany writing bureau had been emptied on the floor and Deepak kicked his way through a drift of paper as he dragged the injured captain into the room and dropped him roughly into a chair.

Tankers such as the Saradukar were required to carry large sums of money in the ship’s safe to cover payroll and port fees. A successful heist could fetch a potential reward of up to half a million dollars, well worth the risk to a small crew such as the Red Devils. Deepak glanced anxiously at his watch, conscious of the time the tanker had spent effectively stationary in the waters of the Strait. The port authorities were trained to notice any ships on their radar that stopped unexpectedly. The sooner they were off this ship the better.

“Ready when you are boss,” said Rizal, crouching to reach the safe’s electronic keypad. The captain was a broken man; his haunted eyes stared dully at the floor of his cabin and then darted to Deepak’s face in terror as he thrust a notepad and pencil into his hands. Deepak indicated the safe with a nod of his head and began to call out the numbers as they were written shakily in front of him. The red light on the keypad changed to green as Rizal punched in the final digit and he gripped the handle and pulled the door open. Rizal whistled appreciatively. Stacked neatly from the safes floor to ceiling were dozens of shrink-wrapped bricks containing crisp dollar bills.

“Bag it up,” ordered Deepak “and let’s get out of here.” He pinched the captain’s cheek with a smile. “See how easy that was?” he murmured softly. The captain flinched from his touch and then lifted his head in defiance.

“You can kill me now,” he slurred. Deepak raised an eyebrow in surprise. “So you do speak Malay?”

Deepak removed the handgun tucked into his jeans and chambered a round.

“Maybe I will,” he mused. “Or perhaps that would only appease your twisted sense of honour? Better I leave you alive so you can spend the rest of your life reliving your shame.” The two men studied each other in silence as Rizal busied himself emptying the safe’s contents into a large leather holdall. An unspoken accord seemed to pass between them and Deepak began to raise the gun slowly. The captain folded his hands demurely in his lap but held his captor’s gaze. As Deepak’s finger tightened on the trigger the door behind him burst open with a bang. Sharif stood in the doorway, clutching his chest and panting loudly. He froze in surprise at the strange tableau. Deepak still holding the gun at arms length did not move his eyes from the figure of the defeated captain.

“What is it?” Sharif blinked once before grunting, “We’ve got company.”                    

*

Buyong had heard the approach of the helicopter in time to move the captive crew below deck and out of sight. It hovered overhead now, the downdraft of its rotor blades causing litter to blow around wildly, as its searchlight swept the ship in the dark. The pilot was obviously trying to raise them on the radio without success. Deepak and the rest of his men crouched on the darkened galley steps pondering their next move.

“Send one of the crew out there to attract its attention,” Deepak ordered. Moments later a frightened man wearing greasy coveralls and work boots was bustled past them and thrust into the night air. He needed little encouragement to begin waving his arms in obvious panic and yelling at the top of his voice. The spotlight picked him out immediately.

“What now?” Buyong whispered nervously. “Even if we make it back to the boat that thing will be able to follow us wherever we go. We’ve got no chance of outrunning it.” Deepak stroked his moustache.

“Mohammed, do you think you can double round whilst he’s distracted and hit him with the rocket launcher?”

Mohammed grinned manically, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness. “I reckon I can try,” he said.

He clapped Musa on the shoulder as he descended the stairs, shouldering the RPG.

“Give me two minutes to get into position” Musa gasped. Had it really come to this? He watched Mohammed jogging down the corridor and up the steps on the other side. The pilot of the helicopter was hovering directly above the panicked crewmember. He was talking rapidly into his radio headset, relaying the shouts he could hear from the man below back to his headquarters on shore.

“This is Coast Patrol to base, do you copy? Request immediate launch of Navy Rescue to my location. Possible Code Delta One under way as we speak. Repeat, request immediate launch of all Navy Rescue vessels in the vicinity of Bantam and Singapore to my location.”

The screams of ‘lanun’ could clearly be heard over the sound of the whirling rotor blades. The man caught in the spotlight below seemed to be gesturing wildly to the pilot’s left. A cold chill ran down the pilot’s spine and he drew in a sharp breath as the moonlight momentarily revealed the outline of a man targeting the helicopter with a metallic cylinder balanced on his shoulder. He wrenched the control stick wildly and the machine banked sharply away from the ship. A moment later the night sky was lit up with the glow of the rocket shooting upwards from the deck. The pilot gibbered unintelligibly into his headset as the grenade connected with the underbelly of the helicopter and seconds later the burning wreck crashed into the darkness of the water below.   

“Go now!” shouted Deepak and he sprinted up the metal stairs and into the night. As he passed the startled crewmember, he barely broke his stride to sweep an elbow into his face. The man crumpled to the floor without a sound.  As they reached the place where the boat had been secured to the tanker, Buyong swung over the railing with practiced ease and used the rope to climb down the ten feet. He planted his feet on the deck of the boat and motioned to Rizal to toss down the leather holdall. Minutes later the seven of them were all aboard. Musa primed the engine, almost in a state of complete panic. What if it wouldn’t start? Deepak cut the mooring rope and to Musa’s relief the engine caught first time. With a lurch the pancung hurtled across the water, skirting the wreckage of the fallen helicopter. Eerily beautiful pools of burning fuel floated on the sea around the tanker like small orange islands. Rizal clutched the leather holdall tightly and held a clenched fist aloft, whooping into the night sky with abandon.

“Quiet you fool,” barked Deepak. Rizal regained control of himself and wiped a hand shakily across his forehead. It gleamed with perspiration. He caught Musa’s eye and grinned. Far behind them the outline of the Saradukar danced with the fiery shadows cast by the burning helicopter.  Musa glanced up at the night sky and then at Deepak before pushing the pancung to its limit; dark clouds seemed to be gathering on the horizon. A storm was coming.                    

*

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