ELEVEN

Locke crept down the stairs until the lifeboats were in view. He felt naked. No gun. No situational intelligence. No plan. Although he could improvise with the best of them, he’d rather put together a well-thought-out plan of attack that — like all Army operations — went to hell after the mission started. Instead, he’d already skipped to the second part, which made the hair on the back of his neck stand at attention.

Through the fog, he saw the man in the black jumpsuit hunched over the hatch of the rightmost lifeboat, attaching to something to it. He was in his thirties, dirty blond, medium build, no visible tattoos. A silenced Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun hung from his shoulder by a strap. He seemed to be alone. Visibility was now over 30 feet, and lot of open space separated him from Locke. It would be almost impossible to sneak up on him.

Locke felt a tap on his shoulder. Fists up, he whirled around to find Grant crouching behind him. For a big man, he was as light on his feet as Fred Astaire. Locke was glad Grant was on his side.

Grant was carrying two heavy pipe wrenches, both two feet long. Big enough to be good weapons, but not so large that they’d be unwieldy. Good man. Grant handed one to Locke, who rested it on his shoulder.

Bad guy, Locke signed to Grant using American Sign Language. We need a distraction.

What did you have in mind? Grant signed back.

Locke’s grandmother was deaf and had taught him ASL soon after he learned to talk. When he joined his combat engineering unit, Locke saw how useful it could be in situations requiring stealth and added it to their normal repertoire of tactical hand gestures. Grant had picked it up quickly.

I just need a few seconds, Locke signed. Get around to the other staircase and act like you’re talking to someone. At least he now had a plan. Not the most elegant plan, but the intruder wouldn’t expect that he’d been discovered, so it should work.

Give me 30 seconds, Grant signed and went back upstairs. Locke got a firm grip on the wrench.

The intruder finished his task at the lifeboats and moved to the railing, where Locke for the first time saw a claw hooked to the side of the rig. The intruder started to climb over the railing, then stopped. Locke heard Grant stomp down the stairs, his voice animatedly raised in some nonexistent argument. So did the intruder, who turned to see who was coming.

He looked at the railing again as if considering whether he could make a quick getaway. Then he looked back at the staircase and seemed to decide against it. The submachine gun came off his shoulder and pointed in Grant’s direction. He raised the weapon to his eye and waited. With the intruder’s attention distracted, Locke saw his chance.

He padded down the stairs, careful not to make a sound, and tiptoed up to the intruder. When he was still six feet behind the intruder, Locke raised the wrench over his head, but he hadn’t thought to tighten its jaw. The loose mechanism rattled with an audible clink. Locke froze, but it was too late. His plan had already gone to hell.

The intruder spun around. Locke, his surprise attack up in smoke, rushed him. The intruder pulled the trigger as he swung the gun toward Locke, intending to cut him down in a scythe of bullets. Nine-millimeter ammunition ricocheted off the surrounding metal. Shell casings rattled off the grating. Locke was close enough to smell the gunpowder puffing through the silencer’s baffles.

Before the intruder could get the barrel of the gun all the way around, Locke parried with the wrench. The muzzle was so close to his head that he could feel the hot gases singe his hair. Even silenced, the gun was roaring like a jackhammer in his ear; without the silencer, Locke would have been deaf for a week.

Locke knocked the gun aside. The intruder lost his grip, and it dangled from his shoulder. Locke tried to grab it, but it dropped to the grating. The intruder kicked it, and it fell over the side to the sea below.

So far, the encounter had lasted all of three seconds. Grant by now had raced to help Locke. With the wrench, he swung at the intruder from behind, but the man saw Grant at the last second and ducked to take the impact with his left shoulder. That move alone told Locke the intruder was something special, probably ex-military, but it didn’t keep the bone from cracking. The intruder howled with pain.

The force of Grant’s hit threw both the intruder and Locke to the railing. The intruder’s right hand dropped to his side and retrieved something from his pocket. Locke expected a knife or a pistol, but the intruder held a cylinder with a button on the end. A detonator.

Before Locke or Grant could wrestle it from him, the intruder pushed the button. Bright flames gushed on the hatches of the four remaining lifeboats. Locke and Grant tackled him to the catwalk grating and wrapped their arms over their heads to shield themselves from the heat. The intruder struggled, but Grant put an end to that with an elbow to the gut. After a few seconds, the flames died down.

They pinned down the intruder’s arms and legs, but he no longer resisted.

“Who are you?” Locke demanded. “What are you doing here?”

Despite the pain, the intruder smiled. “God only knows.” Then he bit down hard.

“Poison!” Grant yelled. He jerked the intruder’s mouth open and pulled out the capsule, but it was too late. In seconds, the man was dead. Cyanide.

In the sudden silence, Locke heard a motor revving below them. He went to the railing but couldn’t see the boat, which sounded like a Zodiac, speed away. Locke noted that it was in the direction of the yacht he had seen earlier.

Grant wasn’t breathing hard like Locke was, but he could see the fire in Grant’s eyes. His friend was juiced.

“What the hell is going on?” Grant said.

Locke shook his head. “Don’t know. But whatever it is, we better find out quick. I don’t think what he came here to do is finished yet. You search him. I’ll take a look at the lifeboats.”

Locke kept his distance as he inspected the damage. The hinges and latches on all of the lifeboats were still glowing, melted shut by an incendiary, probably Thermate-TH3. There was no way to get into them now. From a professional standpoint, Locke admired the guy’s work. Fast, efficient, effective. On a personal level, Locke wanted to wring his neck, not only for wrecking the lifeboats, but for killing himself before answering Locke’s questions.

“Why go to all this trouble to disable the lifeboats?” Locke said.

“I think I know why,” Grant said. “Quick. You need to look at this.”

Locke turned and saw Grant holding a large plastic case.

“What is it?” Locke said.

Grant opened it. The inside of the case was lined with foam. There were three slots in the foam. All three were empty.

“Smell,” Grant said, holding it up. Locke sniffed the foam insert. He recognized the smell immediately. The chemical DMNB and a hint of motor oil. The odor reminded him of his Army days. His stomach did a somersault. Suddenly the cheeseburger wasn’t sitting so well any more.

“At least now we know,” he said.

“Think they used timers?” Grant asked, his customary humor gone. So was Locke’s.

He nodded. “Got to. Remote detonators would be too unreliable and might be set off by equipment on board the rig.”

If the intruder had used timers, he would want to make sure he was off the platform before…

Locke reached down and picked up the dead man’s wrist. As he feared, the intruder’s digital watch was counting down.

“We’ve got exactly thirteen minutes left to find them,” Locke said, synchronizing his own watch.

DMNB and motor oil were the volatile components of composition C-4, a plastic explosive manufactured in the US and used by the military. Somewhere on the oil platform, the dead intruder had planted three bombs.

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