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An Audience with the Pirate King

Hopping out of a stubby speedboat and strolling down a shaky wooden pier in flip-flops and Hawaiian shorts, the pirate king reels off the history of the other boats tied to the jetty. The craft are all small, wooden, and weathered—unremarkable but for the monstrous twin engines weighing on their sterns. There’s something else they have in common. "That one’s stolen from Malacca," says the pirate king. "That’s taken from Singapore. That one was picked up from Malaysia." We come to a cavernous bungalow on spindly stilts over the black mud shallows.

A sign reads SKYDOG KARAOKE AND LOUNGE. Next to it is the Babi Island Billiards Hall, a dimly lit shack with four new-looking tables. A plump prostitute calls out to the pirate king from a window in the Skydog. From the billiards hall, a group of boys watches us pass. "You going out? You need anybody?" they ask. The pirate king ignores them, pulls out a mobile phone, and stabs at it with a finger ringed with a gold-and-diamond band. We round a corner to find three men huddled over beer cans at a battered table, hiding from the midday sun under a corrugated overhang. One looks up and breaks into a gold-plated grin. "Hey!" he hails the pirate king warmly. "I thought you were dead!"

Two full plastic bags of beers arrive at the pirates’ table. All four men are modern-day pirate chiefs and headquarter their crews on Babi. The town is a waterside refuge of stilted shacks, whose thousand or so souls get by almost solely on piracy and prostitution. Such a small place breeds close bonds. The pirates share raids, money, and women. Like the pirate king, the men at the table are short, middle-aged, and tanned. Their wiry arms speak of physical work, their beer bellies of the bars and nightclubs it pays for. The pirate king checks with a burly buddy at the table to see if he has removed a forearm tattoo.

The pair had the same insignia drawn on their arms with a third friend decades ago, when all three were teenagers in a gang of muggers. A few weeks before, the third man had been shot and killed holding up a truck. The police announced they were looking for other men with the same tattoo.

"Feelings" starts up on the jukebox, and the men seem to take it as a cue to begin trading stories about the old days. Remember the time they boarded a U.S. Navy warship by mistake? Or the Russian tanker that turned out to be full of guns? Or the time when one group boarded a ship to find another hijack already in progress? They drink hard, each pirate handed a fresh can as he drains his last. One of the four, a gray-haired man, teases the pirate king for leaving one of his crew to guard his speedboat at the jetty. "What are you so worried about?" he laughs, a gold watch jiggling on his wrist. "If it gets stolen, we’ll just take another one." Gray Hair has an unnerving schizophrenic manner, guffawing uproariously one moment and turning bitter and narrow-eyed the next. You’ve got to expect a few mood swings, the pirate king explains later, from a guy who lost a testicle sliding down a boarding ladder.

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