“Just one guy on deck again,” Jensen said into the headset microphone, typing a command into his computer and shifting between camera images rapidly. “The same guy as before.”
“The other guy left?”
“Back below deck. You’re clear. If you’re going to jump, then do it now.”
Jensen paused on the final camera, which focused on Malcolm, who stood near the loading ramp of the plane, decked out in a black amphibious HALO suit and parachute.
“Did I mention that you look like a badass?” Jensen said. “Be honest—you only took this job to do a nighttime HALO jump.”
“I took the job because they were desperate and willing to pay a fortune.”
“Besides, we’re too low for an actual HALO jump.”
“Couldn’t talk him into flying higher?”
Malcolm ignored Jensen, put on his altitude mask, and walked toward the end of the ramp.
“Makes sense,” Jensen said, playfully. “Since you’re so cheap anyway. You never want to pay top dollar for anything.”
“I don’t like this,” Malcolm said, his voice tinny in the speakers of Jensen’s computer.
“Too close to shore? You wanted to hit them at the end of the trip when their guard came down.”
On the tiny computer screen, Malcolm shook his head. “No. My gut. Something about this job feels off.”
“It seems legit.”
“Too legit,” Malcolm said.
“Too legit to quit?”
Malcolm ignored him. Instead, he asked, “You didn’t find anything odd?”
Jensen said, “Not in the time I had. I would have run a more thorough sweep, but you only gave me a day. What are you thinking? The security is too lax?”
“I don’t know.”
“I did think the same thing.”
Malcolm didn’t reply immediately. Jensen tapped his fingers against the door of the car, wondering what was going through his boss’s mind. He didn’t like to rush him, but they were running out of time.
“Should we call it?” Jensen asked, glancing at the back seat behind him. Amy sat bundled up in her coat, staring out the window, and barely paying attention to him at all.
She provided backup in case the boat made it to shore, setting up distractions for their getaway after they destroyed the cargo.
Amy wanted to be up there with Malcolm, Jensen knew, but Malcolm had insisted on boarding The Lonely Spirit alone.
“We’ll miss our window,” Jensen said. “Your jump is in thirty seconds, so I need to know if we’re calling it.”
A few seconds passed.
“No,” Malcolm said, finally. “It’s just paranoia. We’ll move forward with the plan. You’re right. It’s legit.”
“I’m right?” Jensen said, sounding incredulous. “Hang on—let me start recording, and you can repeat that.”
“Shut up. Focus.”
“All right then,” Jensen said, tapping on the keyboard. “Twenty seconds, boss. Hope you’re ready to get wet.”
Malcolm didn’t reply. Jensen couldn’t imagine doing what Malcolm was about to do. His boss wouldn’t be able to see the water below him until it was too late, which meant putting his life in the hands of sensitive and expensive equipment.
While Jensen trusted his computers, electronics could fail. Even if it didn’t, he wouldn’t be willing to risk his life so readily. One minor malfunction and …
Jensen blinked and forced away the thoughts. That was why he wasn’t up there in the plane getting ready to swan-dive a few thousand feet to the water below. And why he never did those kinds of things. He wasn’t dumb enough to risk his life, not when there were alternatives.
“Are you ready? Fifteen seconds.”
“Count it down,” Malcolm called over the headset.
“I did say this was a bad plan, right?” Jensen said. “Borderline suicidal, putting so much trust in altitude meters—”
“Just count it down,” Malcolm said, clicking the button to lower the ramp on the Cessna. The pilot would close the ramp once Malcolm had gone and never mention to anyone that he’d had a guest on his plane for the last few hours. Jensen didn’t know where Malcolm had found the guy, but it made their job of getting close to the smuggling vessel quite a bit easier.
“Okay,” Jensen said, watching the monitor. “Here it goes: five … four ...”
Jensen sucked in a shuddering breath. Even down here on the docks, he felt trepidation in the pit of his stomach just imagining what was about to happen. On the screen in the cargo bay of the plane, he watched as Malcolm disappeared into the darkness below the aircraft.
Wind whipped past Malcolm’s clothing, and the drop of his stomach registered the sensation of falling, but he couldn’t see anything. The drone of the plane’s engines had gone in an instant, replaced by the violent rush of air pummeling his body.
This made for his fifteenth jump from this height, but only the third ever at night. The other two similar jumps hadn’t happened in this kind of dark, though, with the clouds above blocking all moonlight. It felt like a vacuum—suspended in air and utterly weightless—and as if he could fall forever.
The drop had a bottom, however, and if he weren’t careful, he would hit the water with a sickening thud that would tear him asunder. Then the only luck he could count on was if he died from impact instead of drowning.
How long had he been in the air? Two seconds? Twenty? A minute?
Without the perspective of the environment around him, he lost all awareness of time and height. He glanced at the dial on his wrist. Six thousand meters. He couldn’t have jumped that long ago.
Or the dial read incorrectly.
Not a pleasant thought.
“Fifty-eight hundred meters,” Jensen called out over the headset.
Just hearing Jensen’s voice filled Malcolm with relief. It brought enough to know he wasn’t alone. A few seconds passed, and then Jensen said, “Five thousand meters.”
Jensen continued to count down the altitude as the seconds ticked by. Malcolm passed through the clouds, and tiny dots of light grew in the distance—from the city outside the port, but it didn’t give enough to get his bearings. He had to trust Jensen and the equipment for his survival.
After what felt like forever—though less than five minutes—Malcolm had reached a safe altitude at which he could pull the chute.
“You’re clear, boss.”
Malcolm pulled the strap to release the parachute. His body jerked upward into the air. Then a gust of wind caught hold of him and ripped his body to the side, which felt both exhilarating and terrifying.
He lived for this. And though he couldn’t see the billowing cloth material above his head, he could feel the change in his rapid descent as the chute caught the air and he guided it down.
Directly below him, a speck of light glistened. From this height, it looked like the flame of a candle. That light was his target. The Lonely Spirit. A shipping vessel carrying the cargo he was tasked to destroy.
Malcolm kept an eye on his altitude gauge as he descended, still unable to make out any actual water below. Two more minutes passed with minimal change, and he realized he must be getting close to the water level now.
Here came the most dangerous part of the entire jump: he would have only a few seconds to react from the moment of impact until he became fully submerged, and in that time, he would have to free himself from the parachute before it dragged him under.
On top of that, he would also need to obtain an idea of where he’d landed in comparison to his target. If the current picked him up and carried him too far away from the cargo vessel, then it would prove impossible for his team to find and rescue him before he went adrift completely.
To steady his nerves, Malcolm took a few deep breaths and waited.
Jensen’s voice came over the headset, “Any second now—”
Malcolm received only a split-second view of the night-black sea before he crashed into it. He landed harder than anticipated, and the frigidity of the water overwhelmed him instantly. His suit was designed to protect him from that cold, but it still shocked his system.
The suit kept him dry and insulated, and so, once he made it out of the water, he would warm up in a hurry. Malcolm released the latch on the parachute, slipping it free and letting it go. It washed away at speed, dragged in the undertow.
Then he turned his attention to spotting his target. Light glimmered in the distance to his east, about eighty meters away. It came straight toward him.
“Perfect trajectory, Jensen.”
“Of course. Perfect timing too,” Jensen said. “I have the ship’s GPS and, contrary to popular belief, I can do basic mathematics to line up things like this.”
“Calculating the jump point based on multiple factors like wind, vessel, and aircraft speed and directionality to put you two hundred meters ahead of the ship in its exact path is basic mathematics, right?”
“It is actually about eighty meters.”
Jensen fell silent on the other end of the line for a moment. Then he said, “You didn’t let me finish. Two hundred meters, give or take.”
“That’s a lot of take.”
“Everyone’s a critic.”
“Still, good job.”
“Does that mean I get a raise?”
“Don’t push it.”
Malcolm took a moment to do a gear check while the ship approached: his pistols nestled in their holsters at his sides—a pair of Smith and Wesson M&P9Ls, and his night-vision goggles and Jensen’s little drone hung pinned to his vest in plastic sealed wrapping. Not waterproof, he would have to manage without them until he climbed onboard the ship and out of the frigid water.
In addition, he had several pounds of explosive foam in spray canisters to eliminate the cargo. Though not as stable or destructive as he would have liked, they didn’t require a detonation cap to ignite.
A few high-priority crates were all he needed to go after, and with luck, he would get in and out with no one onboard the ship any the wiser.
Malcolm yanked off the altitude mask and took a breath of the chilly night air. “I thought you said it would be a warm night.”
“It is,” Jensen said. “We’re nice and toasty on the docks. Right, Ames?”
Malcolm didn’t hear anything from Amy. She remained upset that he’d left her behind on this run. He’d considered sending her on the jump instead of himself but had changed his mind at the last minute. No sense in risking her unnecessarily. And he didn’t believe her ready for something like this.
“What Amy said, I dare not repeat over the line,” Jensen said. “But, yes, she is downright fiery out here.”
“At least we have cloud cover.”
Malcolm didn’t worry about getting spotted. When he looked up at the sky above him, he realized that, if anything, the night would only get darker. It was supposed to rain, but he hoped that the inclement weather would hold off until this job was over with.
Malcolm bobbed in the water and waited while the spotlight grew gradually, adjusting his position occasionally to make sure he lay in its path.
The cargo ship towered above him, and he aligned himself with the current to get as close as possible to the side of The Lonely Spirit. He held a hook in his left hand and waited patiently for the moment to strike.
The current threatened to drag him away, but he managed to get his right hand on one of the hull’s ridges and punch the grappling hook through the fiberglass siding of the vessel. The boat moved slowly, but even then, the rushing water made it difficult to maintain his grip. It dragged him along as he started to pull himself up.
His hand slipped from the ridge, and suddenly, he hung loose, dragged down under the waterline behind his hook.
He managed to catch a breath of air before his head got sucked under, and he twisted around and lost all perspective. Without any light, it became impossible to tell which direction was up.
Lungs burning, Malcolm struggled against the current to reach the surface and realized he wasn’t making any progress. He forced himself to relax and grabbed hold of the wire, using it to pull himself alongside the hull of the ship, praying the hook would have a secure enough grip in the side of the vessel to support his head.
Finally, he managed to get his head above water, and this time, he locked both hands on the ridges and pulled the upper half of his body out of the sea. His muscles throbbed, and his vision had tunneled from lack of oxygen, but otherwise, he remained unscathed.
“Malcolm, you there?” Jensen’s voice sounded in his ear. It amazed Malcolm that the earbud hadn’t jarred loose when he got pulled under.
“Undertow,” he said. “Switching to the headset.”
He took a moment to catch his breath. Though still panting lightly, he now gained better control of the situation.
He climbed higher so that his legs hung above the sea. Now it was all or nothing: he released the hook and let it fall. It splashed into the water and disappeared. He wouldn’t get a third chance.
Resolute, Malcolm climbed higher up the side of the hull, opening the plastic bag on his chest. Then he donned the night-vision goggles and activated them. The ship wasn’t well lit, which would give him a significant advantage over the crew.
Next, he put on a slender headset as well, which would give him better connectivity to his team. Though not waterproof like the bud, it had better sound quality.
“You still there?” he said.
“Can you hear me?”
“Hang on. Let me turn you up,” Jensen said. “Say something.”
“Better?” Malcolm whispered.
“Whoa. That’s loud,” Jensen said. “Lots of feedback. I told you we should have sprung for a throat mic.”
Malcolm cupped his hand around his mouth and the microphone. “How’s this?” he said as loudly as he dared. A string of cursing came from the other end, along with a loud thud. Malcolm smiled.
“Not cool,” Jensen said. “Not cool at all. I almost fell out of the car.”
“Is anyone in the control room of the ship?”
“No, just that lone guy on the deck. They don’t seem too worried about security. I hacked their controls already and piggybacked into the system. On your signal, I’ll stop the boat and kill the lights.”
“How long will that last?”
“They can turn them back on pretty easily with manual controls, so make sure you’re quick.”
Malcolm hesitated. “Limited security,” he said. “Only one guard. Why wouldn’t they have more?”
“This isn’t a smuggling ship,” Jensen said. “The cargo is mostly legit.”
“We’re only after three cases, right?”
“That’s all,” Jensen said. “You sure you want to blow up whatever it is? Could be worth a fortune.”
“They paid us to blow it up.”
“What the client doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
“But it might hurt us. They’re giving us plenty to do this job. We’ll not take any extra risk or betray the person who hired us.”
“Fine. I just wanted to register my reluctance to blow up something before checking its price tag.”
“No security,” Malcolm said. “Must not be worth that much.”
“Maybe that’s what they want you to think.”
“Maybe,” Malcolm said.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with this situation. If the crates weren’t worth a lot, then why had they paid so much to destroy them?
They had done a full recon of the ship and found nothing amiss. The crates weren’t registered, and most likely, the crew didn’t know they were aboard. The crew ran its own security, but no one had military training.
Malcolm would have preferred having a few more guards patrolling the ship. At least then he would have known the threat. Then he could plan for it.
What he didn’t know could undoubtedly hurt him.
A second longer he hesitated and then dragged himself over the edge of the deck; the single guard—a man named Quinn, from Jensen’s recon—stood at the opposite end of the ship, leaning against the railing and not paying attention to anything at all right then.
There seemed no chance he would see an attack coming. Malcolm slid himself under the ship’s railing and to his feet. Then he quick-stepped the thirty feet across the deck to the lone guard, while at the same time, he drew a seven-inch blade from a hilt on his shoulder.
Quinn didn’t react until Malcolm reached only a few steps away, and when he began to turn and open his mouth to shout, it was too late.
Malcolm put his hand over Quinn’s mouth and held the blade to his throat. “Not a peep,” he muttered into the man’s ear. “Got it?”
Carefully, he dragged the man away from the railing and out of sight. Quinn didn’t react at all except to allow himself to be dragged. His body shook with fear.
“You’ll wake up with a headache in about twenty minutes, and when you do, it’ll be fine for you to head into the control room and call the coastguard. Let them know what happened, but if you even so much as try to give them a description of me, know that I’ll come looking for you. Got it?”
Again, Quinn nodded.
Malcolm pulled his hand back and punched Quinn in the back of the head with the butt-end of his knife. Quinn collapsed to the deck like a sack of potatoes. Malcolm checked his pulse to make sure hadn’t died, and then he stood up.
“Deck is secure.”
“Tell me when to cut the power,” Jensen said. Malcolm moved over to the metal door that led below deck. He tested it to make sure it stood unlocked. It did.
Earlier, he had memorized the layout of the ship and knew his route perfectly; through the dining area, down the stairs, and all the way across the hall to the cargo hold. If he encountered any resistance, then so be it.
In the region of four or six men stood between here and there, but once he had control of the engine room, he had control of the ship.
“Hang on. Someone’s coming. Guess we couldn’t plan for things to go this easily, huh?”
Malcolm flipped on his night-vision goggles and made the sign of the cross. “Here goes nothing.”