THE PIRATES' TOLL
March 20, 2010
The state trooper stood outside on the pavement, his gun as yet undrawn.
"Stay in the car!"
The Englishman Reginald Taylor (not his real name) was slowly disobeying the state trooper by getting out of the car. The car, a silver Mercedes, was parked at the side of an exit ramp off the New Jersey Turnpike, somewhere between Newark and Hoboken.
The car's owner, James Christodoulou, the chief executive of a small merchant shipping company based in Connecticut, sat behind the wheel. He was cradling a cell phone tightly to his ear and listening to a man named Abbas accuse him, in angry broken English, of secretly transporting nuclear waste for the U.S. government—or maybe also the Italian mob—and dumping it off the coast of Somalia. This, said Abbas, was why the pirates who'd hijacked Christodoulou's ship had become distressed. This was why he needed to pay the multimillion-dollar ransom, immediately. This was why, if he didn't pay, the gang of pirates could at any moment run the ship aground on a Somali beach and force its crew of 28 men—at gunpoint, at knife point, hands on their heads—down the gangway and into the bush.
Minutes before, Christodoulou had taken the call while steering his Mercedes through the Turnpike traffic. He'd become distracted; he'd entered a cash lane when he'd meant to go through the EZ-Pass; he'd blown the toll booth, drawing the attention of this New Jersey trooper.
"Stay in the car!"
Now, watching the cop in the rearview mirror, the cell phone clasped to his ear, a recording device attached to the phone, Christodoulou held his left hand aloft in the high-stress gesture of: I can't talk.
His right-hand man, however, could. "I know this is going to be hard to believe," Taylor, the Englishman, said.
His accent was full Oxbridge. A professional kidnap-for-ransom expert, Taylor explained to the trooper that his friend couldn't, at the moment, hunt for his driver's license, since his friend was just then on the phone with pirates in Somalia. A little less than a month ago, they'd captured one of his ships and taken its crew hostage; his friend, Taylor said, was right now negotiating for their release.
"He really can't get off the phone."
If the trooper didn't roll his eyes, he expressed something less than total credulity.
"I don't care if he's talking to Queen Elizabeth. I want license, insurance and registration!"
Taylor, his hands held where the trooper could see them, managed to convince the trooper to let him remove, very deliberately, from the back seat—"Please, it will explain everything"—a copy of a New York newspaper, one of the tabloids. Taylor held it up. Emblazoned across the pages were photographs of Christodoulou's ship, the MV Biscaglia, swarmed with pirates.
The trooper, American law-and-order, glanced at an intense Christodoulou in the front seat. He looked at the newspaper photographs—pirates, Kalashnikovs, hostages, Africa—an alien shard of experience from the other side of the planet flashing into life on a New Jersey highway. The trooper got back in his car and drove off.
Christodoulou was left with his pirates.
Click here for the full story.