Cloak of Silence: Chapter 25

Friday – early hours

‘What’ve you done to him?’ Doug asked, hysteria edging his voice. Sam was lying on the dirty wooden deck, moaning unintelligibly.

‘You blitzed him,’ Jake said, looking intently at Scorpion, but, perhaps fortunately for Jake, he didn’t hear.

Scorpion gave a short harsh laugh as he walked towards them, reloading his blowpipe. ‘He’ll have a little sleep for half an hour,’ he said casually. ‘Now get away from him or I’ll give you the same treatment.’ The two boys moved quickly away.

The big man pulled Sam roughly over onto his side and checked that he was able to breathe.

‘You the one with the phone?’ he asked as he straightened up, turning his dark eyes onto Jake.

‘Si, is him, sir,’ Greasy Hair pointed at Jake, nodding.

‘I want to talk to you,’ Scorpion said, jerking his thumb at the wheelhouse. ‘Get in there.’

He turned to face the rest of the passengers who were looking on in shocked silence. They fell back as he advanced on them.

‘These people out on deck is bladdy nonsense,’ he said angrily. ‘Get them into the hold.’ At once the two crewmen started herding the passengers towards the door in the forepeak. With Scorpion looming behind them, there were no arguments.

Jake briefly considered jumping overboard and striking out for the shore. But the coast was half a mile away and they would soon turn the trawler around and pick him out of the water. Or worse, Scorpion might use that blowpipe on him and simply leave him in the sea to drown.

In the wheelhouse the captain stared studiously through the windscreen, ignoring him. It took some time for all the passengers to climb down the steep metal companionway and when the foredeck was finally clear, the two crewmen picked up the inert figure of Sam, one at his ankles and the other lifting his shoulders and carried him over to the door and lowered him down into the hold. Jake shook his head slowly. That must be what had happened to his sister; knocked out by a dart from a blowpipe. Scorpion was big enough to pick her up single-handed. There had been no trail for the police dog to follow and that was why.

‘He tell me Warren say he take food to Syntagma,’ the captain said as soon as Scorpion entered the wheelhouse.

Scorpion grunted and demanded, ‘What is our position, Carlo?’

‘Mandraki port in twenty minutes,’ the captain replied nervously.

Scorpion looked at his wristwatch that was even heavier than the captain’s. Jake noticed another tattoo above his left wrist, four letters over a scroll, ‘ONEG’.

‘He say he Warren friend. He know my name, Scorpion, so I think maybe is okay.’ Captain Montaldi spoke quickly, his tongue darting out to moisten his lips. ‘I tried the radio but Warren no answer.’

‘Okay, Carlo.’ Scorpion turned his attention to Jake. ‘Right, tell me who the devil you are, on what basis you know Warren and how the hell you got onto this boat.’

Jake knew these questions would come and he had his strategy ready. If you’re cornered, come out fighting – that’s what his dad would tell him.

He asked forcefully, ‘Where is my sister?’

Scorpion looked surprised. ‘Hah, so she is your sister?’ He was silent for a few moments and his face clouded. ‘She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And you have seen what we do. This is also not good.’

‘So where is she?’ Jake persisted.

‘How did you get onto the boat?’ Scorpion asked, ignoring the question.

Jake looked at him defiantly but decided he had more to gain by seeming to cooperate. ‘I saw the inflatable from the bench, so went to take a look. I thought it might’ve something to do with my sister’s disappearance, so I hid away on it and was brought out here.’

‘That confounded Warren,’ Scorpion muttered. ‘Can’t wait to get back to his beers and his DVDs.’ He shook his head. ‘And who is your friend?’ he asked.

Jake shrugged. ‘Just a friend,’ he replied. He wanted to keep the presence of the Thunder Bay group secret if possible, but the captain spoke up. ‘Scorpion, there are more like him.’

‘More?’ Scorpion roared. ‘How many more?’

‘Four,’ the captain replied, nervous again.

‘Four! Why didn’t you tell me, you great Italian oaf?’ He bunched his fist and the scorpion on his arm writhed in corresponding anger.

‘You didn’t ask me, Scorpion,’ the captain replied, his voice a thin whine.

‘But how did four, no, five of you, get onto this boat?’ Flecks of saliva flew from Scorpion’s mouth and he wiped the back of his hand across his face. ‘And where the hell are the pilgrims?’

Jake said nothing and Scorpion advanced on him. ‘Answer me!’ he demanded, pushing his face into Jake’s.

But Jake stood his ground against the mountain of a man and responded with a shrug. ‘We told them to wait in the storeroom on the beach and got on the boat instead.’

‘And Warren didn’t notice.’ Scorpion turned away, deflated. ‘My God.’

‘It was dark,’ Jake couldn’t stop himself trying to make Scorpion feel worse. ‘He only turned the lights on as we were leaving.’

‘That’s because the last time I damn well told him to,’ Scorpion said morosely, staring through the windscreen. Nobody spoke. The big diesel engine continued its rhythmic beat and the lights on the shore slid slowly past.

‘Geeze,’ Scorpion said after a long silence. ‘Five of you! What am I going to do with five of you?’

‘Let us go. And my sister.’

‘Who are these others? Friends or what?’

‘They’re on a course at my parents’ adventure school.’

Scorpion rubbed an eye with the palm of his hand as though he was getting a headache. ‘Adventure school,’ he repeated flatly.

After a minute he demanded, ‘Carlo, where’s your lazy crew got to? They scared of me or what?’

‘Yes, Scorpion, they keep out of your way.’

‘Well then, you go and make me a coffee.’

The captain disappeared and Scorpion draped a massive forearm over the ship’s wheel, smoke from his cigarette curling around his head as he stared through the windscreen.

‘So tell me what you think is going on.’ He shot a sideways look at Jake and pulled on the cigarette, cupped between his right thumb and forefinger. The black scorpion on his arm came alive as he twisted his hand.

Jake could have retorted, ‘Why should I?’ but decided that wouldn’t get him anywhere.

‘My sister went up to the bench last Thursday evening. I think she got mistaken for someone else and I guess you shot her with one of those darts. You’re smuggling something using that RIB and this trawler and I reckon its migrants. You’re keeping her locked up somewhere.’ Jake nearly said ‘at Syntagma’ but stopped himself in time. He would have to explain how he knew and the least said the better.

‘Smart,’ Scorpion commented, taking another drag on the cigarette. ‘What now?’

‘I don’t know what now,’ Jake said honestly.

‘My boss told me to kill your sister,’ Scorpion said conversationally, dropping the cigarette butt onto the floor and stubbing it out viciously with his heel.

The air was suddenly still as Jake looked incredulously at the man in front of him.

‘You didn’t,’ he said slowly. ‘You couldn’t… could you?’

Scorpion looked at him steadily for what felt like forever.

‘No, I couldn’t,’ he replied at last, almost whispering the words to himself.

Jake closed his eyes briefly and exhaled his pent-up breath.

The captain bustled noisily into the wheelhouse with three mugs of coffee, oblivious of the tension in the tiny space. ‘I made him coffee too,’ he said to Scorpion apologetically.

Scorpion grunted and took a mug, cradling it in his huge hands, the muffled slow thud-thud-thud of the trawler’s engine the only sound. Jake took the mug the captain handed him and realised that his hands were shaking.

‘My sister,’ Scorpion said unexpectedly. ‘Ja, I had to go looking for her when I was 18, a bit older than you, hey?’ he looked enquiringly at Jake, who nodded, still numb.

‘Different circumstances. Very different.’ Scorpion took a gulp of coffee. ‘I was a troopie in the RLI.’ He looked at Jake again. ‘Heard of the RLI?’ but Jake shook his head this time.

‘Of course you haven’t. Rhodesian Light Infantry. Heard of Rhodesia? Maybe in your history class at school?’ Scorpion answered his own questions now. ‘History?’ he sniffed. ‘For me it was bladdy real.’

Silence descended again as the trawler cut a straight wake through the dark water. Jake sensed more was to come.

‘I was home on the farm for a week’s sick leave. I had taken some shrapnel but nothing serious. The bush war was going full bore and I was needed back quickly. My folks and my brother were away when the gooks came. Didn’t reckon on me being home. I was sleeping when they dragged her away but the houseboy woke me and I gave chase. Tracking and killing was my job and I did it well. The RLI had an impressive kill ratio and I pushed the average up a bit that night.’ He related the story in a matter-of-fact way. ‘I got her back in one piece but it wasn’t pretty.’

He drained his mug of coffee and immediately lit another cigarette.

‘Ja, man, I’ve seen things I’d rather forget,’ he continued after a while. ‘But forgetting doesn’t seem to be an option.’ The cigarette smoke swirled around the wheelhouse.

‘Look at this,’ he said, holding up his left wrist. ‘ONEG; you know what that is?’

Jake tried to work it out, but eventually shook his head.

‘Man, it’s my blood group.’ He shook his head and pulled hard at the cigarette. ‘Just in case, hey?

‘I don’t kill any more. No, I have my little beauties instead.’ He patted the tin box in his shirt pocket. ‘I use African muti in them. Fast and effective. Ja, nowadays I help people. And if people from Africa want to get to a better life in Europe, then, man, why not help them?’

‘And you make good money out of it,’ Jake commented, if only to keep him talking.

‘Listen, people pay a couple of thousand dollars for a short trip across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain. Do you know how many have died trying to cross there in the last ten years? I’ll tell you: five thousand. Hard to believe, hey?’

Jake nodded silently.

‘There’s tragedies all over, every day. People from Syria, Afghanistan and wherever drowning in the sea. Our route is much more secure and civilised. We cater for the elite. Those who want to pay our fee for a comfortable and secure crossing. Your countryman Churchill said that Italy was the soft underbelly of Europe.’ He laughed briefly – a short harsh sound. ‘It still is, my friend, for what we do. The soft underbelly of the EU now, that’s the only difference.’

The lights of Corfu Town now filled the windscreen. They appeared to be heading directly for the main port. But the captain had said Mandraki port. That was at the old fortress, surely? No further mention of Syntagma.

‘They know something is going on but they can’t figure it out,’ Scorpion went on. ‘They spy on the ship in Benghazi and three times now they’ve searched it on arrival in Trieste. But there’s never anyone suspicious on board. They’ve been offloaded onto the RIB when the ship sails past Corfu. It’s practically invisible on radar and we bring ‘em to the monastery for a few days. Dress ‘em in robes so anyone looking will think they’re monks. We feed them up a little and give them some documents and put them on a commercial trawler like this into Brindisi.’

‘And how did you get to use the monastery?’ Jake asked curiously.

Scorpion gave a cunning grin. ‘A little bit of pressure in the right place. And our guys can’t speak Greek so they became silent monks. Clever, hey?’

Jake wondered if Scorpion had thought up that trick himself.

‘But, man, it’s always people that are the problem. Listen, I set up this perfect cover but Warren went and spoilt it. I warned him over and over that chasing that girl would ruin the operation. So I told him if the girl comes to that bench one more evening I would give her something to remember.’

‘Why hurt the girl?’ Jake asked indignantly. ‘Why not punish Warren?’

‘Agh, he’d just laugh it off. But threaten the girl and he sits up and takes notice.’

‘So you shot a dart at my sister,’ Jake said angrily, picturing Sam’s collapse onto the deck. ‘What’ve you done with her?’

‘Ja, geeze, your sister was there. Wrong place, wrong time. What should have been a short sharp shock for Warren’s girlfriend has turned into a major drama.’

‘I don’t think her dad would’ve been too pleased,’ Jake said.

‘Hell, he’d never have known. I’d have left the sleeping beauty at the bench and when she came round, Warren would have made sure she got home okay. Lesson learnt, problem solved.’

‘So, when you saw it wasn’t…’

‘As soon as I fired the dart Warren said ‘that’s not her’. We didn’t know who it was, so we had to lock her up. Take no chances.’

‘So, what have you done with her?’ Jake repeated his earlier question.

‘She’s being looked after. Geeze, I make life difficult for myself by being so kind. Now you and all these people turn up,’ he grumbled, a plaintive edge to his voice.

After a silence Jake asked, ‘Is Taki okay?’

‘Taki? Ja, well he stood up to Warren. Most guys don’t try that and those that do, usually regret it.’

Jake grimaced. There was so much he wanted to know but he wasn’t about to get the details out of Scorpion.

‘But,’ Scorpion continued. ‘Like Rhodesia, all good things come to an end. The monastery was perfect cover, one hundred percent perfect. And thanks to the Boss, the police didn’t ask any difficult questions, but the cover is blown. Scorpion will have to find a new lair.’

He squinted at the radar screen and turned the wheel slightly. The trawler heeled as it settled onto a new heading. The lights of the town were now on their starboard side and the ancient Venetian fortress lay ahead of them, dark and brooding.

Jake’s spirits lifted. Scorpion was doing a runner. That’s why he’d told Warren he was going to Italy and told the captain something different. There might be hope if Scorpion was simply making a break for it.

‘But, my friend, this is not only one-way traffic.’ Scorpion was speaking again, his voice a low growl. ‘For people who are too inquisitive, there is a ready market for boys and girls like you and your friends. You’re not stupid and probably wondering why I didn’t give a monkey’s about telling you what we do.’ A sudden chill came over Jake as he stared at the back of Scorpion’s head.

‘There’ll be nobody interested in hearing about it where you’ll be going.’

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