November 1, 2022
THE EERIE RUMBLING of a small boat engine echoed across the murky waters of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard harbor at three o’clock in the morning. Clouds hanging low in the sky covered the moon and killed all light. The craft followed the same route that the passenger ferry took returning from Catalina Island. Cruising in unnoticed through the San Pedro Bay breakwater, the ebony craft aimed toward the rapidly approaching sandy shore. The pitch-black night sealed off the stars and painted the entire harbor in the ominous smudges of darkness.
Hunching over the dashboard, the driver pointed toward the shoreline. “See that string of lights along the edge of the harbor?”
“Yeah,” the man sitting next to him growled.
“Underneath every one of them is a surveillance camera. We want to miss getting caught in their glare. Understand?”
The burly man in the thick dark coat nodded. “Don’t worry. I don’t want Big Brother down here at Long Beach dock to get a shot of my mug.”
The motorboat turned to the left and started easing parallel to the shoreline. “We got to watch for naval surveillance as well,” the driver said. “You can bet that none of these ships are floating out here unguarded.”
“You’re the man. Whatever you say.”
“Don’t forget it,” the driver snapped. “This operation has to be precise. Remember, if anyone asks your name, you tell ’em it’s Abel, Abel Rabi.”
“Abel, huh?” the man laughed under his breath. “Strange name for a boy from San Francisco. You want to know my real name?”
“No,” the driver said. “Rabi is Arabic. Leave it at that.”
He shut off the boat’s engine and the craft drifted toward the shoreline with the incoming tide pushing them toward the beach. For several minutes the small boat floated silently toward a large naval tanker anchored in the harbor. Searchlights shot their huge swords of illumination out over the ocean, but none were aimed low enough to spot the black boat easing toward the tanker a few hundred yards away.
“I don’t even know your name,” the man in the dark coat said to the driver. “You call me Abel, but I don’t have any idea who you are.”
“That’s correct,” the driver said. “And it stays that way.”
“How come you people paid me such a wad of money to do this job hauling stuff?”
“’Cause you’re big and strong,” the driver said. “That’s it. Stop asking me questions.”
The man now called Abel grumbled under his breath, but he didn’t say anything more.
Staying on the backside of the enormous tanker, the driver steered his craft parallel to the large steel hull. The menacing towering side of the tanker loomed over them, completely hiding them in the threatening blackness.
“This tanker won’t move,” the driver said. “Watch for a rope ladder. It should be hanging around here somewhere.”
The motorboat drifted on top of the gentle waves spreading out from the side of the tanker. The driver in a dark coat pushed them away from side of the tanker with a long wooden paddle. Off in the distance another wave of shore lights swept over the ocean. From the backside of the tanker, the outline of a rope ladder dangled just ahead of them.
“There it is,” the driver said. “We’re right on target. The ladder is hooked on the deck.”
“Good. Get closer.”
“We have to drift,” the driver said. “Get that bundle on your back and carry it up the ladder. Hurry up. We’re going to be there in a moment.”
The man called Abel bounced over the seat. Sitting behind him was a large package tied to a backpack harness. He slipped his arms through the harness straps and pulled the entire apparatus toward him. “This thing is really heavy,” he mumbled.
“That’s why we hired you and you’re so well paid.” The driver pointed at the rope about to float over the bow of their boat. “Get it on, and be ready to climb.”
Abel exhaled and took another deep breath. “Man, this thing is really, really heavy.”
“There’s the rope—grab it and get up there!”
With a quick step, the large man stepped onto the rope ladder and started crawling up the steps. Each movement was labored, but he kept moving. The motorboat floated on.
“It’s a long way up,” Abel shouted over his shoulder.
“Shut up,” the driver whispered. “Just get up there!”
Pulling small earphones out of his pocket, the driver pushed them into his ears and turned on the amplifier in his pocket so he could hear everything happening on the rope ladder and on the deck. The boat kept drifting silently away.
Abel maintained his steady progress, climbing on up to the top. As he neared the deck, a head appeared over the edge. “Who is it?” a sailor demanded.
“Abel,” the man puffed. “Abel Rabi.”
“Make it quick,” the sailor barked. “We don’t have much time.”
The driver of the motorboat listened carefully, realizing everything seemed to be on schedule. He could hear the man called Abel talking to the guard on the deck and felt confident about the drift of the conversation.
“Where we going?” Abel asked the guard.
“I’ve been told to take you down to the hold of the ship. We’ve got to move carefully. Can you carry that bag on your back down several flights of stairs?”
Abel cursed. “Easier than I carried it up that shaggy rope ladder.”
“Let’s go,” the sailor said.
The driver of the motorboat waited a couple of minutes and then hit the starter switch. The engine sputtered for a moment and then settled into a low purr. Turning the wheel sharply to the left, he guided the boat back toward the breakwater and the passenger ferry route out of the harbor toward Catalina Island. Once he cleared the ship’s perimeter by a hundred yards, he pushed the throttle to full speed, roaring away from the inner harbor area.
Reaching down beside the seat, the driver pushed a red button on a switch next to the seat. Suddenly a ball of fire exploded from the deck of the tanker, spewing fire and debris straight up in the air. For a moment the black night appeared like noon as human figures shot through the air with pieces of the smokestack. The 20,000-ton tanker shook like a child’s toy and a huge wave ripped across the channel. With vibrant red and orange flames sparkling in the night air, the tanker started to sink.
The instant the motorboat’s driver saw the explosion, he pointed the boat out to sea so that the oncoming wave would lift him and carry the motorboat forward. Within seconds a torrent of water picked up the boat and slung it onward. He jerked the speed control forward and the craft lunged forward out of the harbor.
“Goodbye, Abel, or whoever you are,” he said to himself. “We appreciate you delivering the bomb.” He chuckled. “And yourself to the bottom of the ocean.”
Copyright © 2004 by Robert L. Wise