The walk from Neko II’s gangplank to the guardhouse at the foot of the dock was laborious. Little ridges of black tar bubbled out of the dock’s creosote-impregnated timbers. Each step across the dock made a scandalous ripping noise. My gaze darted frenetically down the dock, to the window, the door, to the warehouses beyond. The oily smell of the dock, the aroma of the slow-roasted meats in my backpack, and the approaching stench of humanity emanating from the old dock house overwhelmed my senses. This would be the night we made our escape. Hidden behind a panel sewn in to the bottom of the bag was the gun I’d use to set our boat free. Yet I felt like I was marching to my own execution.
The day had begun with a wave of panic throughout the City of Suez. Refugees poured into the city from Sinai. Scores of boats ferried people across the canal to temporary safety. To the west, an endless procession of people in cars and trucks, and riding camels and makeshift wagons began the forty mile journey across the desert to Cairo.
Neko II remained lashed in place as the war rushed past us. The crew’s agitation grew worse throughout the day. We took turns climbing to the top of the rigging for a better view of the unfolding chaos.
After noon, thousands of retreating Egyptian soldiers flooded the city from the east. Two days before, they’d been brimming with confidence and bravado; now they were dazed and dusty. They’d left their weapons behind. Most fled to the west, after looting food and water.
Egyptian officials converted the empty warehouses along the waterfront into makeshift field hospitals. Army trucks of all description pulled up and dropped off the wounded. Sometimes we could hear their cries.
The BBC was our lifeline to news of events beyond our line of sight. A major battle had been fought the day before at Abu-Ageila. Israeli and Egyptian armor, infantry and artillery clashed for control of a hub of roads near the center of the peninsula. According to witnesses, the much larger Egyptian force had been routed.
More concerning to us: an early morning Israeli amphibious assault of Sharm El-Sheikh, the Egyptian seaport located on the southernmost point of Sinai. The invasion was largely unopposed by the Egyptians, Israeli forces were already rolling up the coast toward Sinai.
This news sealed our plans for escape. The Israelis would be at Suez before the sun set a second time. We had to get away from the port that night. The Captain asked me to retrieve all of the handguns I’d stored in my cabin and report to Dix’ cabin.
I struggled to coordinate the simplest movements opening the cabin door and twisting a screwdriver. My jittery hands struggled and fumbled to open the secret gun locker under my bunk.
A wave of nausea washed over me as I placed the three handguns into a pillowcase. For the first time, I saw them as instruments of death. They weighed heavily in my hands. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. Then I hoisted the leaden pillowcase over my shoulder, locked the door to my cabin and headed down the hall.
Edward “Dix” Dixon was the boat engineer. His solitary stateroom doubled as a machine shop. He’d sailed with the Captain longer than anyone else on board; Dix was the only crewman not completely under Piest’s thumb. Dix’s creative but scatterbrained mind could fix almost anything. His cabin looked like a junkyard. Yet he knew where every last nut and bolt were stashed.
I entered Dix’s room. The Captain closed the door behind me. Piest and Dix were leaning over hastily drawn pencil diagrams of two long cylinders.
“The best way is with baffles,” Piest said.
“I know, but I don’t have the tools to attempt to weld inside a pipe,” Dix countered.
As he spoke a cigarette dangled precariously from his lips, a growing length of ash at its end. His face looked like it was molded of clay. Puffy bags beneath his bloodshot eyes made him look years older than he was.
“We’ll have to try something with wipes I can glue in place. I could make them out of rubber. Or felt.”
Then he noticed me and held his hand out. I gave him the pillowcase filled with guns. He removed and unloaded them one at a time, carefully inspecting each.
“I can’t do anything with the .45. The barrel is too short and I can’t screw or weld to it without interfering with the slide. See, .45s designed to accept suppressors are fitted with longer barrels,” he explained, pointing at the front of the barrel that was almost flush with the front of the gun. “I’d need another three-eighths of an inch to make it work. Minimum.”
He placed the automatic aside and picked up the two Smith & Wesson .38 snub-nosed revolvers.
“I think this one has been fired a lot. Look at the gap between the fore face of the cylinder and the barrel.”
He passed the gun around for each of us to examine.
“It would be pointless fixing a suppressor to that one because so much of the blast and noise is already blowing out the sides of the gun. So we are left with this one. Tightly fitted. It’s our best shot.”
He put the chosen gun down and pulled a twelve-inch length of one-inch diameter iron pipe from a cubby beneath his workbench.
“This thing will be ridiculously heavy, but I think it will work pretty well. I can cut this thing shorter – maybe take five or six inches off. Then I will glue a series of evenly space wipes to the inside, weld flat washers to each end, and then weld the thing to the end of the barrel.”
“A homemade silencer,” I said without thinking.
The others looked at me like I was stupid.
“A suppressor,” the Captain corrected. “It will help contain muzzle flash and damp the sound. But it will still be a helluva lot louder than you’ll want it to be. Don’t be thinking that you can go about assassinating people like a Ninja.”
“That’s right,” Dix said. “But do you know what would help? I could empty some of the gunpowder from these cartridges. If we could make the muzzle velocity of the bullet slower than the speed of sound it won’t create a sonic boom.”
He pulled a bullet reloading manual from a mass of dog-eared books and magazines piled on the floor beside his bunk. His cigarette pointed upward as he smiled triumphantly, ash falling from its tip.
“Perfect. Piest, Griffith, let’s get out of Dix’ hair and let him get to work.”
“One more thing, Captain. When I weld, I’m going to need to run the generator to power the welder. That’s bound to alarm the guards.”
The Captain wrinkled his forehead and growled.
“How much time do you need?” asked Piest.
“Fifteen minutes, max.”
“Okay, let us know when you are ready to start and we’ll manage the guards.”
I returned to my room a little steadier than I’d left it. But only just.
The Captain told me to help manage Bert and Ernie when it came time to run the generator engine. I waited in the deckhouse trying to think of how to mime “Don’t worry, we’re just charging our batteries,” but my mind failed me.
I heard the switch click that charged the starter. The diesel generator engine turned over, sending a shudder through the boat, and began clattering away. The black exhaust pumped out of the engine through an exhaust port below the waterline near the stern, causing the water to churn and burble.
Bert’s face was the first to appear in the window, his hair was disheveled, as if he’d been rudely awakened from a mid-day nap. He threaded the barrel of his AK-47 through the pane-less window and shouted something in Arabic. A moment later, Ernie burst out onto the dock with rifle in hand and cautiously made his way across the boardwalk toward our boat.
I stepped onto the deck to meet him with my hands in the air. He yelled and gestured with his gun.
I nodded and smiled, and pointed to the thick mooring lines that were still safely tied to the dock cleats.
“It’s okay, Ernie. See, we aren’t going anywhere.”
He shoulders dropped when he saw that we weren’t trying to make a run for it, but his eyes still flashed with fear and suspicion.
“Just a second, buddy.” I held up a finger and slowly backed up toward the deckhouse door. “See?” I reached through the deckhouse door and flipped on the deckhouse lights. “See, we are just running the generator to charge our batteries.” I flipped the light switch on and off a couple times before turning them off and stepping away from the deckhouse.
Without taking his eyes off me Ernie shouted something back to Bert, who replied in kind. Neither guard stood down, but their postures relaxed.
I pointed to my watch and nodded. “Just a few minutes and we’ll be done. Got it?”
Thus began a stalemate that lasted the ten or fifteen minutes until Dix finished his welds in his cabin. I stood, my arms growing tired over my head, on the deck facing Ernie. My knees shook with the vibration of the engine. Ernie stood on the dock, his eyes not wavering away from mine, with his AK-47 pointed at me from his waist.
“Done!” I faintly heard Dix yell from below deck. Seconds later the diesel engine cut off.
“That’s it.” I shrugged and smiled at Ernie.
Ernie returned to the guardhouse at the foot of the pier. For the rest of the day, either he or Bert was visible in the window watching us.
Meanwhile, Dix inserted a wooden dowel rod through the suppressor and into the unloaded .38 to demonstrate that he had assembled everything flawlessly. I held the weapon. The iron suppressor made the gun terribly barrel heavy and undoubtedly inaccurate. However, at the confined space of the guardhouse, that wouldn’t matter. If all else failed, I could club our captors to death with it.
I prayed that Bert and Ernie had not found religion overnight. I packed my rucksack with four bottles of Plomari along with grilled fish, roasted lamb, steamed rice and pita. In total I took about half as much food and much stronger drink than I’d served the previous evening.
The Captain paid me a visit before I set off on my mission.
“Griffith, you can’t walk into that shack at the end of the pier with any ambiguity about our circumstance here. By dawn, the Israelis air force will be raining bombs down on this place frollowed by an artillery barrage from their armor. At the rate they are advancing, the Israelis will be on the outskirts of Cairo in two days time. What you will do tonight will give the twenty-three of us aboard Neko II a chance at life.”
Ten paces from the guard’s door, I froze at the sound of a commanding voice emanating from the dock house. I recognized it: the naval officer with the hawkish nose and Nasser-style mustache who had taken our boat into custody. He was berating our guards for something.
I felt like a deer in the middle of a rural highway staring into the bright lights of an oncoming truck. I was completely exposed. My only possible escape: leap into the water on either side of me. A splash would certainly attract attention. I might try to sprint toward the guard house and hide beneath the window, but that would also make too much noise.
As I stood paralyzed in my thoughts. The door violently burst open casting yellow light from inside across the dock. The officer slammed the door behind him and marched directly to the warehouse without ever looking over his shoulder toward where I stood in plain sight on the dock in front of Neko II.
My heart flailed madly and I dared not breath until the officer was out of sight. I took long controlled breaths to settle myself down before resuming the sticky walk to the guard house. I paused again at the door to get my heart rate and breathing under control. And then I knocked.