Excerpt from the new espionage novel: The Bosphorus, to be released worldwide September 2017
by Bruce Colbert
Van Zandt gave the order to his First Officer to get underway as he stood at the glassed-in bridge of the container ship, and his second in command repeated the order over the ship’s public address system to the boatswain’s mate below. Instantly the deck became alive with a half dozen crew unloosening the thick rope hawser lines from the dock and winding them in neat circles near the rail.
The First Officer spoke on the intercom, and he told his engineering officer to start the ship’s turbines, and the order was obeyed with a loud diesel roar. He walked outside the bridge and called down to the deck officer to ask if everything was secured for cast-off. The youngish blond officer in khaki’s looked up at the bridge and raised his hand with a thumb in the air, indicating it was done.
From the bowels of the freighter came an even louder roar of engines as the container vessel gradually moved in a backward motion, and it drifted away from the dock. Soon the ship had moved its stories high bow twenty or thirty yards from the concrete dock at an angle, and ever so slowly the screws began a forward motion, turning under the water at a low speed. In five minutes, the ship was inside the channel, and the freighter became its voyage out of Sevastopol into the open waters of the Black Sea on its way to Turkey.
Its wide deck was covered with grey metal containers, stacked three stories high, as the wake behind the massive ship showed the work of the engines. The dark Crimea water roiled round and around as it moved into the ship channel and its ship’s horn announced the vessel’s departure.
Below the bridge, this scurrying crew had been checking and rechecking the boxy containers to make certain the cargo had been secured and with that accomplished informed the deck officer who called the bridge.
With a great deal of precision in execution the night before the entire cache of weapons had been stowed into these closed containers and loaded by a dock crane aboard the waiting ship. It was the standard procedure for cargo handling.
Van Zandt had watched from the bridge as Hessian’s trucks had come to the dock area and with hydraulic equipment had quickly loaded the containers, sealing each with a set of locks. It had taken five hours to accomplish, and he watched a swarthy-looking man in a baseball hat and black leather jacket direct the workers, ensuring that each container was loaded with weapons and secured.
It was uncertain if these men were regular Sevastopol stevedores, or others, but it didn’t matter. The loading was done under the cover of darkness as had been promised him. He spotted his own man down there, off to the side, watching everything that was being done, and carefully. From time to time, he would glance at the bridge with a smile on his face, and he texted the captain when the task had begun, inspecting the containers himself. After that, he approached the man in the leather jacket, spoke to him and left.
With his departure, the crane began to load the containers on the deck. It had several bright beam lights shining on the deck surface as its great steel arm picked up the containers and gently placed them all in a neat row, much like a child’s set of blocks, or even dominos.
At one point in the nighttime loading, a container had slipped somehow in the crane’s grip, swinging dangerously in mid air, but the crane operator had been calm. He returned the sliding container to the dock where it was secured and loaded again. That incident had upset Van Zandt, who had screamed at his First Officer to watch those fools, his hand gesturing toward the dock. The officer had hurried from the bridge to the dock area, and as he was walking toward the crane, he saw the operator place it back on the concrete, where several men secured the thick metal cables holding it.
It’s exasperating thought Van Zandt to always have to work with so many fools. There’s was always some crisis to deal with, even at sea. And he called the ship steward and told him to bring a bottle of schnapps to the bridge, and some ice.
With his schnapps in hand, the Dutch captain saw that this loading was complete, and he had received a message from the deck on the containers, All was secured for sea he was informed in a terse manner, the usual response from his crew to the captain.
He asked his First Officer if the ship’s course had been set. He looked at the set of computers at the navigation station, and saw for himself that it had been done. He monitored the engine speed and looked at the depth indicator in the channel to see how much water they displaced fully loaded. Van Zandt glanced back as the ship picked up speed, now out of the main channel. He could see the flickering lights of Sevastopol in the distance.
Van Zandt mused to himself that this must the last time he’d risk something as dangerous as this voyage. Here he was with a ship loaded down with illegal arms, and if caught, he’d be hung like some war criminal. Still the money gave him so much freedom, and his thoughts drifted to Bali and his two women.
“I grow tired of this, Hannes,” Van Zandt said to his First Officer who had entered the bridge compartment, shaking off the cold.
Hannes took off his heavy pea overcoat with its gold striped insignia boards on the shoulder, and he sat down in one of the two padded navigation chairs, which faced the bow. The Dutch captain motioned to the schnapps bottle, ice and glasses on a nearby tray, and the officer helped himself.
To the far right, a young helmsman sat out of earshot monitoring the ship’s course and speed on the computer screen with earphones on his head. He wore a merchant Navy issue blue dress uniform, the typical uniform of a sailor in port.
“We could be delivering cheese instead,” Hannes whispered to the captain, and he had started to snicker loudly.
“For God’s sakes,” Van Zandt had to spit out, “that’s a depressing thought,”
The big man reached over for the schnapps to pour himself another glass.
“Who is buying these anyway?” Hannes inquired of the tall captain, and had leaned back in the cushioned chair.
“It’s a mystery, and that suits me fine,” Van Zandt answered. “The less I know, the better.”
The officer sat up straight for a moment and faced Van Zandt.
“At the worst, we plead ignorance, this manifest has been doctored, we’re the innocent here, we just steer the ship,” Hannes added smugly, and he saw the Captain nod his agreement. They had been wiling conspirators for some years and had reaped the rewards. The captain of course had Bali as his refuge, and the other officer owned a small villa on the North Sea for his efforts.
Outside the wrap around glass of the bridge, the moonlight glowed stark white against the darkness of the Black Sea. The water looked as if it were a huge mirror set before them, and they could see for five miles as this wavy surface broke before the steel bow. It was only four hundred miles before the ship would approach the Bosphorus and once through these narrow straits, onward to the Dardanelles.
It would be an easy sail if they motored at their normal speed and didn’t encounter bad weather, or rough seas. The Black Sea was notorious for its half hour hurricanes, as mariners called them, where the skies darkened and the wind might rise up to 80 knots with ten-foot waves at once. Sometimes it was even worse, and there were freighters on the bottom that had broken up and sunk in these vicious freak storms. Their weather forecast for the week showed cold temperatures to be sure but with no storm fronts on the way. Seas were relatively calm.
“Check the containers for leaks yourself before the next watch comes on,” Van Zandt ordered his officer. “This is poison, and we don’t want a dead crew.
If anything happens, we’ll dump them into the sea.”
The officer went to a cabinet where there was a plastic case with the gas vapor monitor. In a minute, he had on his overcoat and left with electronic chromatograph device in his hand. He carried what resembled a hair dryer with a long nose and at the handle was a small square screen. He flicked the start switch, and this green screen lit.
Van Zandt watched Hannes from the bridge move from metal container to container with this device in his hands, looking each time at its LCD screen.
At one container Hannes had halted longer than the others, and it seemed he had checked the chromatograph screen several times. He walked completely around the container for a third time, and in the moonlight, he pulled out a small tablet, and recorded some figures in it. When he had finished, he had looked up and saw the captain silhouetted in the bridge window and gave him an all-clear signal with his arm. The captain nodded and left the window.
Upon returning to the bridge Van Zandt asked him why he had spent so much time at one container, was there something wrong?
Hannes pulled out his notebook and turned several pages until he’d found the numbers he had written. He sat down in a nearby chair and stared at the chromatograph screen, scrolling down and looking at the various readings, silent and finally looked up at Van Zandt.
“I think this is alright, though there was one container where something came onto the screen, nothing on all the others, but this one,” he noted. “I checked it three times after that, and all of the other times it came up zero, like the other containers.”
Van Zandt said, “Then what could that be?”
“Here’s the number from the first reading, I wrote it down,” Hannes reported. “It’s a little below the red line, and possible danger, just a hair under it on the chart. Look for yourself.”
The Dutch captain took the notebook and looked at the gas device window with its colored graphs and levels, and he saw that the number Hannes had written was, in fact, hovering at a danger mark.
“I checked it twice after that and nothing,” he said. “It could be a fluke, it’s a machine after all, but I’ll check it more tonight to be certain.”
“That’s wise,” said the Captain, “Let’s see if we can pick up any indication of leakage from that container, say in another hour, and an hour after that. Go down there and check it, we have to be certain.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong, but I’ll go over it a half dozen times if I need to. It’s the device, it went off, and on the next two passes around the container, nothing.”
The Dutch captain was silent, and his face took on a somber note. He had to be sure, this was an awkward situation, particularly at sea. No, they’ll monitor the damn container a hundred times more before they tied up at the Turkish dock. Glancing at the ship’s computer GPS display on two large screens, the Dutch captain quickly calculated their average speed and had planned to enter the Istanbul straits at noon in two days time when one way traffic through the thirty mile channel was devoted to Southward traveling vessels. He had thought the erratic gas monitor business absurd, and questioned the value of the instrument anyway.
There was usually a great deal of tanker traffic in the straits and progress was always slow. Van Zandt concerned himself with these port authorities and government officials, particularly the Turkish police, who sometimes made random searches of the vessels. The freighter would basically get into line, one vessel in front and one behind for the thirty miles voyage inside the narrow channel. His ship would be at the mercy of any security or police force on the shore. These were the moments of most concern to the Dutchman.
Generally the large tanker traffic motored in tandem inside the deep middle ship channel. But Turkish police and customs powerboats roamed the other sea lane along the shoreline like mad hyenas, going back and forth, on the lookout for vessels which might prove suspicious, and boarding them with armed search parties.
These Turks searched for consumer electronics such as computers, large screen TVs and cellphones, and naturally illegal drugs. Within the past year, they had confiscated two tons of heroin. These cargoes weren’t heading south as the Sevastopol freighter had planned to travel in Turkish waters. The earlier raids were on two ships heading north through the straits to Russia and the Ukraine with drugs.
Interrogation of the ship captain and crew members had led them to criminal organization ties in Moscow and Kiev who sold street drugs throughout the republics of the Russian Federation. It was a massive and complex crime web, and the Turkish drug traffic had forced a tougher surveillance of international shipping.
During the last night in the Black Sea, Van Zandt sat at the head of the table with his staff in the officer’s salon, lost in his own thoughts after a roast duck dinner, and waited for the steward to bring liqueurs to the table. Talk was garrulous and there was laughing amongst the officers.
Suddenly and ignoring the convivial table talk, the Dutch captain stood up and excused himself, announcing with a somber face that he was going to the bridge. The table quieted, and he left without any prolonged goodbyes to the officers. He had wanted to be alone or as alone as he could be on a ship he commanded.
Inside the bridge communications center, he grabbed a cognac bottle and a glass and sat himself on of the leather navigation chairs facing the bow.
Three stories above the deck, the enclosed bridge had no sounds of the seas below as its bow bit into the salt water and rose with the waves. The captain had poured his glass and with his hand warming the cognac, he looked out to the vastness of the night with no horizon. The helmsman and the crew member at the GPS computer station had greeted the skipper when he came in, but saw on his broad face that he wanted silence, and they went back to their tasks.
Van Zandt turned his head slightly and looked over his shoulder toward the computer screens, and he could see a red line that was ship’s progress, and the blue line, which charted its course. He grunted to himself, and returned to watching the black water. He was fourteen years old when his father had sent him to the maritime academy and he had left Holland for the sea at sixteen, first in the Pacific for three years, and the North Sea oil tankers for another five, and two more in the Indian Ocean and so forth. He could hardly remember all the places he had sailed.
At thirty-five, he was a First Officer on the ore boats out of Cape Town, and at forty he had captained freighters in the South China seas. He was well off, his Bali home was magnificent. He had two grown daughters from two former marriages, one living in The Hague with a lawyer husband and the other in Brussels. Both his former wives had been Dutch, or at least half Dutch, with some French and German thrown in with one. But he had always loved Asian woman more, and with that thought a broad smile came to his face.
“I erred,” he thought to himself, “I should have had a Indonesian wife from the beginning, or Tahitian,” and took a long drink from the glass.
What had he suffered from these Dutch women, he recalled, a bit morose, and shook his head. The first woman was the daughter of another captain he had known and had served with for a year in the North Sea, and that was a mistake. The other, he sighed, was simply his own foolishness at play: a pretty face, long shapely legs.
But he loved beauty, and he though of himself as perhaps a man like Paul Gauguin, who eschewed Europe and its trappings for the South Seas, for this simplicity of life, and for women with depth and kindness, who would worship their man.
Some painting of Gauguin’s remained stuck his mind, though he wasn’t sure which. There was a beach with huts, and the blue calm sea, and the women were preparing a simple meal over a fire, and they beamed with this inner strength and beauty. Yes, Gauguin had walked away from Europe, its pestilence.
The sea had been good to Van Zandt, and he was known by so many as a fine freighter captain. The Dutchman was one of the very best in the world, a man who had taken these ships through the worst storms: hurricanes and tidal waves, and icebergs too. Van Zandt had never lost a single man at sea, and his owners had trusted him implicitly.
He was getting old though, his large body hurt him most nights, particularly his back, and he thought the time to end his days at sea had finally come. Why should he continue with this life? He had reflected and sighed loudly, staring out at the breaking waves which had picked up in the last hour.
With his drink in hand, he walked over to the navigation station where one sailor sat at an illuminated screen, and pushed a button on the keyboard next to him. Instantly a weather forecast appeared on the screen. Van Zandt bent over and his bleary eyes scanned the weather report for that night and the next day, and he grunted his approval. The seated sailor had glanced at him and smiled in recognition and the captain gave him a wan grin before returning to his leather chair and his own thoughts.
On the very early morning of the last day at sea, the captain had the steward bring him coffee and bread and cheese on the bridge, the night’s motoring had put the vessel almost fifty nautical miles from the Istanbul straights.
He checked the ship’s instruments matter-of-factly and nodded to the watch helmsman. Van Zandt gestured to the large tray, suggesting he help himself to the bread and cheese that had been served. The man thanked the captain but remained at his post steering the massive craft. It moved through the waves on an autopilot system keyed to a navigation program like jet airliners in the sky. He simply monitored the dials for anything untoward. He also consulted the nearby radar screen after minute or two with a glance. The entire bridge was of course computerized.
As the clock moved closer to eight, the captain told the helmsman to call the Turkish port authority for clearance at half past the hour as they neared the Bosphorus, and he agreed, repeating, “Aye, aye, sir.”
On the radio, the helmsman informed the Turks of the ship registration, size and weight of its cargo and its final destination. The Turkish authorities made note and told them to approach the channel opening at approximately nine o’clock.
They would be in a queue of vessels, and his ship was right behind a Chinese flag freighter as they slowly entered the strait clearly marked with green and red buoys. The seascape narrowed as if were a wide river with shoreline and buildings on each side. The captain stared at the shore from one of the side windows spanning the bridge, and he could see some goatherd with his animals on a hillside.
Routinely they continued motoring in this deep middle channel and some of the crew not occupied with tasks stood on deck and looked at the passing countryside. They were now in Turkish territory, and on the close-in horizon they could see the minarets and high rises of Istanbul as the container ship moved through the water hardly making a wake. The outside temperature had warmed significantly and some of the crew had removed their coats and could be heard laughing.
Van Zandt and Hannes were on the bridge, and they were talking with each other in low voices.
Hannes said, “I’ve checked the containers thirteen times, all of them. Nothing, no evidence of escaped gas. The one that showed leaks the other night, registers zero. It must have been some quirk in the device.”
“Good,” answered the Dutch captain, “it’s one more thing we can forget about, and that’s a blessing,”
Van Zandt told Hannes to get the crew off the deck and down below as they moved through the channel, he didn’t want to call any attention to the freighter.
Around them, you could see high-speed powerboat traffic ahead and behind along the narrow inside channel. They were mostly Turkish police boats that darted around the large ships as if they were sheep dogs, moving the herd along its journey.
They were three miles from the exit into the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul rose around the shoreline for miles in the morning haze as the ship slowly motored. One of the boatswains on the deck was gesturing toward the bridge and he was joined by the deck officer who had gone over to the rail. He was looking over the side. A loud speaker below bellowed something in Turkish, then in Russian and the officer walked to the ship intercom and called the navigation center.
He told the captain there was a Turkish police boat alongside, and they had requested to board the ship. They had not informed him of the reason, and had insisted the crew drop the ladder so they could come aboard. As he heard the deck officer’s voice, a bolt of fear shot down the captain’s back, and he stiffened. “What could this be?” He wondered, trying to remain calm as a concerned Hannes looked on, perplexed himself.
“What do we do, captain? The deck officer asked on the phone.
“Drop the ladder, and allow them to board the ship, and act as if it’s fine with us, not a problem, you understand,” Van Zandt told him.
“Yes, sir,” said the officer at the ship rail, and informed the crew to drop the ladder so the Turkish authorities could come aboard.
“I’ll be down right away with Hannes,” he said, and turned to his First Officer shrugging his shoulders.
Outside the navigation center on the stairs he stopped Hannes, and said, “This is probably nothing, they’re looking for drugs, so let’s simply show them we’re not carrying heroin.”
Hannes added, “You’re right, it’s about drugs, there’s no need to worry. We’ll just go about our business, Captain,” and he forced a smile.
As they reached the deck, the Turkish police officers had started to step over the rail. There were four of them who boarded: three policemen with automatic weapons, and some lieutenant who was in charge with a side arm. The lieutenant saw Van Zandt and his markings of rank, and he approached him with a smile on his face, and greeted him in Turkish.
Van Zandt said, “Excuse me, lieutenant, but could you speak English?”
“As you wish,” said the youngish lieutenant and explained their mission in boarding the ship, calling it a continuation of random searches that the Turkish government had requested of foreign tanker traffic in the Straits.
He asked Van Zandt for a copy of the cargo manifest, and Hannes went to the bridge to retrieve it, returning with a three-page document that the lieutenant studied for a moment and handed it back.
“You have food products, some machines for the steel industry and industrial gas products for refrigeration,” the Turkish police lieutenant said in summary, “Is that correct?”
“It is,” answered Van Zandt with his blank face, “all in containers,” and with his arm motion pointed to the cargo.”
The lieutenant called over two of his men with automatics, and he said, “We will inspect then, to see if this is so.”
And with that comment, the lanky Turk walked to the container area on deck followed by his men, Van Zandt, Hannes and two ship cargo handlers.
Walking down a row of containers, the lieutenant pointed to one, and he instructed Van Zandt to open it for inspection. The ship cargo handlers opened the door and inside were stacks of kilo bags of grain pilled to the ceiling.
The Turkish lieutenant asked for two bags he pointed to be brought out of the container, random bags he had selected, and put on the deck in front of them. He instructed Van Zandt’s crew to cut them open, and he told his men to search them for any hidden drugs, or possibly electronics. They found nothing but corn kernels in these and the three other containers he searched with grain.
Finally he pointed toward the area of the cylinders, and he instructed the crew to open one of the containers. Inside were stacked stainless steel gas cylinders, and he noted that, and with no more scrutiny had them close the door. He opened another container, which were boxed machine parts, and the final container he pointed to was another one with more cylinders. The lieutenant walked into the container where he could only place one foot, and hit the metal cylinder with his open hand. He told the cargo handlers to remove one of the cylinders and put it on the deck in front of them. Stand it up right.
They looked in earnest and the captain nodded that they should do what was asked. They struggled with the heavy metal cylinder unaware of its lethal contents. The cylinder gave no indication of the deadly gas inside. When the crew had begun to struggle with removing the cylinder, Hannes had caught Van Zandt eyes, and his own signaled fear.
For a moment, the lieutenant walked around the cylinder and his hand touched a release valve on he top attempting to turn it. The valve wouldn’t move, yet the Turk kept at it with his gloved hand until he finally gave up.
“I was curious,” he commented to Van Zandt, “what an industrial gas smells like. It must stink like the air around those factories outside Istanbul.”
“You must be careful of your eyes, lieutenant, with these gases,” the Dutch captain warned him. “I would not like you to be blinded out of curiosity.”
“What gas is this?” The Turk asked the ship’s officers standing in front of him.
Hannes answered first, instinctively, “It’s Freon.”
“Freon,” said the lieutenant as he made a motion for the door to be shut, “My chemistry was so long ago. Freon, you say? The gas in the back of my refrigerator at home that keeps it cold?”
“That’s correct, lieutenant,” the Dutch captain offered.
“Ah,” he asked Van Zandt, “Where will this this gas go now?”
“We unload in Canakkale, lieutenant,” he said with a half wry smile. “That’s our destination.” His men stood by emotionless.
“So you will keep our beer cold in Turkey,” he said in a sly but joking manner.
Van Zandt replied, “It’s my sincerest hope,” and with that he asked the lieutenant if he might offer him a Dutch beer in the salon.
“Alas no, but thank you, duty,” stated the lieutenant and directed his men to the rail for departure.
He walked around the deck several more times, and asked Van Zandt if there was any cargo space below decks. The captain said there was, and the ship had used it to store its packaged food items, and in a separate compartment, oils and lubricants, which were need for its engines.
“To be thorough, I’d like to see it,” the lieutenant insisted, and so a relived Van Zandt led him down to these holds at a level closest to the water line.
Going down the stairs to the hold, the lieutenant had asked him how old the ship was, and other things, perhaps in the way of conversation.
Inside the food hold were additional refrigerators, and the lieutenant opened one of them, and looked inside. Holding the door open he had pointed to two cases of Heineken beer, and laughed.
“You Dutch like to bring your own beer with you,” he said. “You don’t drink Turkish beer?”
“Not at all, Efes Pilsen is a favorite of mine,” Van Zandt noted with gusto in his voice. “I have it at cafes in Cankkale if we stay over for a few days.”
Following the lieutenant and his men up the narrow passageway from the hold, the Dutchman knew he had dodged another bullet aimed at him.
As the Turkish boat powered quickly away from the ship in a quarter turn of splashing white water, Van Zandt and Hannes watched it move into the inside sea lane leaving them in the opposite direction.
“What if he had seen the shells?” asked Hannes with a tightened face, “What would we have said?”
Van Zandt answered, “I don’t know,” and with that both men made their way back to the Bridge through the labyrinth of narrow stairs winding around inside the steel ship superstructure.
Bruce Colbert is an ex-Navy officer, actor, filmmaker and author of five books. He divides his time between New York and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.