The twin diesel engines hummed, vibrated throughout the ship. The bow sliced through the sea smooth as black slate, radiating symmetric ripples into an expanding triangle from the stern. It was the moment when the dark, silent night gave way to the first faint glow of dawn.
I sat in my cabin in an armchair, wearing a suit, dress shoes, and no tie, a book closed on my lap. I ran my fingers along the binding and felt the grooves of the pages shut tightly together. I wanted to read but instead found solitude peering out the window, contemplating what we had just gotten away with.
A knock on the door startled me from my thoughts.
The door cracked open. A soldier not more than twenty-five years old looked in. “They’re coming after us.”
I sighed. “How did they find us?”
“The president had a tracking device on him. We missed it when we searched him.”
“Damn.” I looked intently out the porthole but couldn’t see anything in the darkness. “How are they coming? How many?”
“It’s two Zodiacs. Ten men each. Our drone has them on video. They’ll reach us in ten minutes.”
“I’ll be right up,” I said.
“James says for you to wait here.”
I put the book down on the end table, stood up, and walked toward the armoire, where there sat a silver metal case. I took a key out of my pocket, placed it in the lock, turned it till the buckle clicked open.
The soldier hovered uncertainly in the doorway.
I opened the case, finding a carefully placed and well-maintained Remington 700 long-action rifle. I removed it, grabbed some bullets, and loaded it.
“Sir, James says that you’re safer here in your cabin,” said the soldier.
He watched me push past him, rifle in hand, and into the hallway of the rundown former luxury cabin cruiser. The frayed green carpet offset the brown hardwood paneling on the walls. I passed empty cabins until I reached the stairwell. A brass sign with a lightbulb glowing inside through the cut-out, stenciled lettering read “Sundeck” and showed an arrow pointing up the stairs.
A flight up and I found myself on deck, where the scurrying of our mercenaries contrasted the glasslike Caribbean Sea. A tall soldier stood stoically in the commotion, ordering the men into place. They took cover behind the walls at the stern of the ship. Each man with an assault rifle strategically positioned, looking over the wake into the gradually brightening dawn.
I approached the commander. “It’s the Venezuelan Presidential Guard who’s found us, I imagine.”
James turned to me. “I gave orders for you to wait below deck.”
“How long before they reach us?” I replied.
“They’re eight minutes out.”
“Where do you need me to be?” I asked.
“In your cabin.”
“I’m the only one with a long-range rifle. All of the other men are using standard Kalashnikovs. It would seem that I could be of use. I’m also the head of this organization.”
“But I run the military operations. Period,” said James.
“Where do you want me?” I repeated.
“I don’t have time for this. Go take a position at the corner and stay behind cover. If shit gets intense, go to safety.”
“Fair enough.” I moved to the where James had pointed. It was at the stern on the port side. My spot was protected behind the metal wall of the ship. I leaned against the railing and braced my rifle so it was stable.
Men coordinated our defense, shouting orders in English, Spanish, and French.
James put his hand on my shoulder. “Watch the horizon. As soon as you get a shot, take it. If they get aboard, go back to your cabin, shut the door, and wait with your pistol.”
“Good.” James ran off, shouting over his shoulder, “Aim for the skipper!”
Everyone had his position and orders. The three decks of the stern were dotted with men draped over their rifles scanning the horizon. The scurrying settled into tense silence. The engines groaned. The waves lapped at the side. A white, rippling wake swished off from the stern of the ship. Someone coughed. The light of dawn intensified gradually over the placid Caribbean Sea, revealing the hills of a few tropical islands that stood like dark lumps on the edge of the sea. Just two or three light whiffs of cloud hung in the sky, one side lit by the approaching dawn, the other dark and foreboding.
I peered through the scope of my rifle. My eye strained at the horizon, looking for the first signs of the approaching Zodiacs. I felt my heart beating heavily in my chest. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, reopened my eyes, and returned my focus to the horizon. I concentrated on a spot off in the distance, resting my gaze there for a few seconds to let my iris adjust to the darkness. The line between sea and sky was indiscernible. I saw nothing. I turned my focus to another spot. My eye settled in. I struggled to see any movement in this blankness.
“Do you see anything?” someone asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
I moved my scope farther to the right. Waited. Settled in. Darkness, gray, black, blue, mixed into a dim blur. Then, a splash of white. Then nothing. Then another splash of white. Then another.
“I see them!” I shouted, breaking the silence. “Eleven o’clock!”
I heard the men shifting their positions.
“What do you see?” James replied in a hushed tone from somewhere.
I stared more intensely through my scope. “One boat,” I said. “It’s too far for a shot.”
“I see a second,” said another voice from elsewhere on the ship. “Three o’clock.”
“Fire when in range,” said James.
The Zodiac appeared more clearly through my scope. I remained focused as it sped closer, now able to distinguish the individual men on board. I fixed the crosshairs on the skipper at the controls. He was just entering range. The Zodiac bounced very little on the smooth predawn sea. I held my fire, needing him to be closer.
“Stay cool,” said James calmly, anticipating what I was thinking.
I took another deep breath and concentrated on the man at the controls. The strike force wore black from their boots to their balaclavas. The skipper moved up and down, in and out of the crosshairs of my scope. There was no sure shot. I just had to do my best. I spread my feet and planted them firmly on the deck. The rifle was flush against my shoulder, my hand holding it firmly under the barrel, leaning it solidly on the railing. The rifle was a part of me, part of the ship, connected to the skipper by an invisible line. We were all linked. I squeezed the trigger. The rifle recoiled. The bullet left the chamber, sure of its destination. Across the sea it traveled its course, finding the Zodiac’s skipper and striking him down. The boat swerved out of control to the right and came to an abrupt stop.
“Woohoo!” came the cheers from our men.
“Now the other,” someone shouted.
I took my eye away from the scope and spotted the other boat. The sky was brighter now, and the other boat was much closer. I turned toward it and aimed my rifle in its direction. I looked through the scope. I could easily see the skipper.
“Hurry up,” said another voice. “We’re almost in range of their guns.” At first, I didn’t understand because if we were in range of their guns, they would be in range of our guns. But then I realized that there was a heavy machine gun mounted on the front of their Zodiac.
“Don’t rush him,” I heard James say.
I tried placing my feet solidly, but unlike before, it just wasn’t comfortable. My rifle wasn’t settling in.
“The first boat recovered with a new driver,” one of our soldiers shouted.
I put the second skipper in my crosshairs. I took a breath, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. The shot went off, but this time disappeared harmlessly into the sea, as I knew it would.
“Shit,” I said just as the heavy machine gun on the second Zodiac opened fire, peppering our ship with unrelenting firepower. We could do nothing but take cover behind the metal walls, metal walls that proved too thin to protect us from the heavy rounds. I flattened myself against the deck as bullets clanked through the metal around me and whizzed over my head.
The barrage lasted almost a minute until, ominously, the heavy gun stopped firing. I heard the motor of the Zodiac reach the ship. The Venezuelan Presidential Guard shouted to each other in Spanish. We were being boarded. Our men opened fire. Commencing a close-range firefight. It was loud.
“Joe, go back to your cabin,” I heard James shout from somewhere.
Being in the corner, I was a bit away from the action toward the middle of the stern. I scrambled to my feet and saw many of our men down. The Venezuelan Presidential Guard stormed over the ship’s walls, and the other Zodiac that I had briefly slowed now joined the action with a second wave of men.
“Fall back to secondary positions,” yelled James. He must’ve planned for this, knowing we were outmanned and outgunned. My head spun in confusion. There was little I could do to help, given my long-range rifle. I was not a solider. I had never been a soldier. I was an internet billionaire in his mid-forties who had a hobby shooting long-range rifles. But I also ran a nonprofit organization that assassinated corrupt world leaders. In this case, we had kidnapped the Venezuelan president and his entire criminal cabinet to bring them to justice in The Hague. And now his elite Presidential Guard was coming to rescue him. We either fought them off or we died.
Hunched over, I ran inside the ship, almost missing the door to the stairwell. I grabbed the door jam and pulled myself through and down the stairs to the interior of the faded elegance of the hallway. Muffled sounds of gunshots and shouts penetrated the hall. I reached my cabin and pulled open the unlocked door, entered, and shut it behind me, turning the lock on the knob, pushing the bolt shut, and fastening the latch. I stepped back and stared at the triple-locked but fragile wooden door. I dropped my rifle and held my hands out in front of me. They were shaking.
I heard one of our men shout, “Guys, I’m trapped on the starboard side, need backup—” and then his voice was gone. The voices of the Venezuelan guard grew stronger. We were losing the firefight. I had to help somehow. I ran over to the bed and ruffled through my bag, pulling out my pistol. I verified that it was fully loaded, cocked it, and took a deep breath. “I can do this,” I said to myself. I unfastened all three locks on the door and yanked it open. I stuck my head out. The hall was clear.
I jogged to the stairwell and down two more decks into the hull of the ship, where the walls were now metal and covered with chipped and stained gray paint. Halfway down the hall, I reached a door, turned the handle, and pushed it open.
President Juarez sat alone in the room, handcuffed to a metal chair fixed to the floor and wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and a red tie.
He looked up at me with a smile. “You have about two minutes left.”
I said nothing.
“You look nervous,” he added.
“I’m fine,” I said nervously.
“Give up now, and I’ll let you continue to live. We could even do business together.”
“Doing business nor continuing to live holds no interest to me.”
The sounds of boots and men yelling echoed off the metal walls in the hallway outside.
“¡Estoy aquí!” yelled the president. Then turning to me, he said, “Last chance.”
The door was kicked open with a bang. Three of the Presidential Guard entered, dressed from head to toe in military gear, rifles, and boots.
I pushed the barrel of my pistol against President Juarez’s temple. “Don’t move or I’ll shoot,” I said to the soldiers.
“Drop it,” one of the Presidential Guards said.
“These men are crack shots,” said the president. “You’ve got no chance.”
They were sizing me up for the shot. The president was right. I had no plan and no chance to get out of this.
“You’re going to die,” the president said.
“I don’t care. I’ll take your corrupt ass with me.” I felt my finger squeezing the trigger, when three shots rang out in succession. The three Presidential Guards dropped dead, revealing James and two of our men standing behind them.
“Fuck!” I shouted in relief.
“We’re clear,” said James calmly.
“What happened? We were losing,” I said.
“We took care of it,” said James. “But this is all that’s left of us on board.” James motioned to the two men behind him.
I swallowed hard.
“We got more of our men waiting for us at the airport in Bonaire.”
I turned to President Juarez. “Looks like you’re going to trial after all.”