Chapter 7, Red Mist
It was the closest thing to a ghost ship that Max Koga had ever encountered. The deck of the Mucho Gusto was devoid of people, as a trio of lights overhead cast long shadows on an empty white metal floor. Amid the odor of diesel fuel and stale sea water, he stuck to the shadows and made his way to the superstructure located amidships. There, he found a thick metal door that led inside.
The door was left slightly ajar, allowing him to peek inside. He saw a short hallway that led to the crews’ quarters, and for the first time, he felt, or rather heard, the presence of people aboard, as voices emanated from one of the far rooms.
Koga spotted a small landing with a flight of stairs just inside the main door. By all indications, it descended to the cargo hold, and from the darkened state of the floor below, there didn’t seem to be anyone standing guard. Making sure that his Nike cross-trainers made no sound, he stepped into the superstructure and descended the flight of stairs quickly and quietly as possible.
Once he reached the landing, he came upon a door with a small round window at eye level. He peered through the thick tempered glass and made out the dark silhouette of something the size of a car sitting in the middle of an empty space. He pushed down on the metal door handle, but it was locked.
Giving up on going any deeper, he turned around to head back up the stairs when the sound of heavy footsteps sounded from the floor above him. Someone was coming. Koga tried the door handle again, this time with more force, but still no luck. With no other foreseeable option, he lifted the SIG Sauer handgun out of its holster and held it lightly in his hand.
With his heart racing faster, his vision began to tint in a slightly red hue. Koga pulled a Xanax pill from his pocket and popped it into his mouth, swallowing it dry. The red gradually disappeared, and a quiet calm settled his nerves.
Well, whaddya know. The damned things work.
As he backed up against the far wall, he noticed a tight opening immediately under the stairwell, called the spandrel. He bent his body into a small ball and backed himself into the cramped, dark space, all while keeping the pistol aimed at the foot of the stairwell, ready to shoot if anyone should look his way.
The steel floor plates of the ship shook when the first man touched down.
From his crouched hiding position, Koga could only make out a pair of boots: green rubber-soled military types caked with brown dust. Not your typical deckhand footwear. Another set of similar boots followed, but these were a tad smaller and cleaner. One of the men unlocked the cargo-hold door and, after it swung open, the boots stepped through the doorway.
Time to move. Koga returned his gun to its holster and pulled out one of the special canisters he received from Rawlings. He popped off the cap, leaving the plastic cover on the floor, and then crawled out of his cubby, assuming a sprinter’s starting stance. He rocked back once and launched his body forward, springing out from his hiding spot, with the metal canister gripped tightly in his right hand.
It took exactly three full strides to reach the first man. Koga threw a high left hook into the head of the smaller deckhand, striking him between the lower right ear and spine, rendering him unconscious before he hit the floor. On his way down, the man dropped a can of spray paint that clanked onto the floor. Without paying it any attention, Koga immediately followed up the strike with a choke hold on the larger man, wrapping his left arm around his neck, while at the same time, stabbing his chest with the knockout drug.
The big man had no time to react, as the drug went to work instantly, causing his body to fall limp onto the cold metal floor next to his comrade.
“Buenas noches,” Koga said.
After injecting the smaller man with the other canister—ensuring that they would be out for at least two hours—Koga searched the pockets of both men. Under the lone flickering ceiling light, he could see that they had dark complexions, long hair and thick beards. The larger one had a tattoo of a scorpion on the side of his neck, while the smaller man had the same tattoo emblazoned on his wrist. They both had handguns wedged inside the pockets of their camouflage pants—Russian-made Grachs— which Koga confiscated and shoved under his own belt.
He then hurried over to the object in the middle of the open space, lifting the tarp to see what lay underneath. It was indeed an automobile, a low and wide sports car; one of the most stunning examples that he had ever laid eyes on. The front fascia was highlighted by round exposed headlights, while flared front and rear fenders made the car appear nearly as wide the cargo ship. The badge on the hood read MachStar, and the absence of a grille and tailpipe indicated that it was an electric vehicle. He noticed a fresh scratch on the lower part of the passenger-side door, which explained why the two men brought a can of spray paint with them, and probably why the captain was being chewed out earlier in the day.
Koga opened the driver door and dropped his body into the cockpit, checking the inside liners of the doors and across the dashboard for hidden compartments, but other than the glove box and a storage slot in the center console, there was nowhere to stow anything larger than an iPad. After lifting himself out of the car, he opened the hood located behind the cockpit, where he found a large battery pack which could double as a storage box to hide drugs, money, or even small weapons.
He checked the luggage compartment at the front of the car, but it was empty. Then, as he closed the trunk lid, he saw it. The car’s A-pillar. It was exactly the same as the one in the photo. Max took out his smartphone and snapped a shot of the car’s profile, immediately sending the jpeg file to Raja Singh with the message: Is this the same car as the one in the picture?
After covering the car with the tarp, he hurried back up the stairs, his mind trying to piece together the bizarre trifecta of a Chinese car company, a radical Islamic terror group and the Eldorado Cartel. When he reached the deck level, he could still hear voices emanating from the doorway furthest down the hall.
Was it worth the risk to take a quick look?
Again, something inside of him seemed to push him to go, so he quietly walked towards the slightly open door and peeked inside. There were four men sitting at a small dining table playing cards in what appeared to be the mess, talking and laughing loudly. A couple of AK-47s were propped up against the wall and a dozen Russian handguns were resting on a table next to piles of cash in U.S. dollars.
After making a quick visual sweep of the room, Max backtracked through the hallway and out of the superstructure. He quickly walked down the gangway and made his way back onto the dock. After waving to the security guard on his way to the parking lot, he jumped into the Lexus, when his new smartphone vibrated. It was a message from Singh.
Positive. It’s the same model car.
Koga pushed the speed dial button for Paul Verdy, whose voice instantly sounded through the car’s audio system.
“Find anything interesting?” Verdy asked without a greeting.
“Sir, I just had a quick look inside the Mucho Gusto, and I think I found something.”
“You went inside?” Verdy asked in a surprised tone.
“I’m on my way back to the office now,” Koga said, deflecting the question.
“What did you find on the ship? Was there a car on board?” Verdy asked.
“Yes, and Raj just confirmed that it's the same one as the car in the photo with al-Ahmed.”
There was a long pause, until Verdy finally asked: "Are you saying that the Aqarib and Song Motors are somehow connected?”
"Seems like it, sir,” Koga replied, "because the ship’s crew were speaking Arabic and armed with AK-47s. And a couple of them had tattoos of scorpions on them, which is the Aqarib insignia.”
“I think it’s time we have a chat with your new friend Abdul Hassan,” Verdy said. “Let’s bring him in.”