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Star of africa, p.21
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       Star of Africa, p.21

           Scott Mariani
 

  ‘Wish we had a bunch of things,’ Gerber said.

  It was afternoon when they heard the sound of the plane.

  Chapter 33

  The distant twin-engine drone of an aircraft jerked Ben from his reverie, and he jumped to his feet and shielded his eyes with the flat of his hand to peer up at the sky. There it was, a tiny coloured speck tracking steadily above the horizon.

  ‘Shit, that what I think it is?’ Hercules said, and stood up so abruptly that his weight made the raft tilt.

  ‘Easy! You want to tip us over?’ Gerber warned him. ‘Flinging your lardy ass around like a hippo.’

  ‘You callin’ me fat, homes?’ Hercules said in a hurt voice.

  ‘Won’t be for long, if we don’t get rescued any time soon.’

  ‘Fuck you, man.’

  Jude, Jeff and Tuesday joined Ben in waving their arms and yelling at the tops of their voices to try and attract the attention of the faraway pilot. The speck against the sky didn’t grow any larger. The engine drone gradually died away. All they could do was stare in dismay as the plane shrank to a barely visible dot and then disappeared altogether.

  ‘Well, that’s that,’ Jeff said, scowling up at the empty sky with his face screwed up against the sun’s glare.

  ‘They’ll be back. We’ll see them again soon,’ Jude insisted. ‘Or someone. It’s got to happen.’

  ‘It’s a big ocean,’ Gerber said.

  But Jude was right. They did see someone again soon.

  It was less than an hour later when they heard the sound of the second aircraft. It wasn’t the flat drone of a plane, but the thump of a helicopter. And it wasn’t just a speck bypassing the horizon, but coming their way and growing louder every minute.

  They waved their arms and flapped their brightly coloured life jackets in the air and shouted until they were hoarse, but it was unnecessary. The chopper pilot had spotted the raft, and was heading straight for them. As it got nearer, Ben could see it was a large helicopter, like one of the now-obsolete Westland Sea Kings that had been coming to the end of their RAF service life when he was a young soldier. It would have plenty of room on board for all of them.

  But something about it bothered him. He wasn’t sure what. Not yet.

  ‘Are those coastguard colours?’ Jeff asked, standing at his shoulder. Ben was no expert, but he didn’t think they were. In America, USCG choppers were generally bright red. In Britain, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency painted their fleet in red and white livery. The same was true of France. The old RAF air sea rescue Sea Kings had been high-visibility buttercup yellow, while in developing countries like Africa, where the fleets tended to be provided by United Nations, the standard colour was UN white. It was hard to tell from this distance with the sun’s glare behind it, but the helicopter coming towards them now looked like some kind of military drab olive green to him. He said nothing, kept watching its approach.

  ‘Condor! Condor!’ Gerber shook his friend’s shoulder, rousing him excitedly. ‘We’re gonna get out of here. We’re saved. You’re gonna be okay!’ Condor managed a weak smile and a croak.

  Hercules and Jude exchanged a jubilant high-five, both grinning irrepressibly and dancing about the raft like kids. ‘Boy, is it gonna be good to feel solid ground under my feet again,’ Hercules laughed. ‘Hear that, Murph? We goin’ home, lil’ brother.’ The parrot looked distressed by the gigantic roaring green monster eagle looming overhead. Hercules held out a finger and Murphy hopped onto it, grasping it tightly with lizard claws and flapping his wings. Hercules gently folded him into the big side pocket of his jacket, where the bird seemed content to ride with just his head peeking out.

  The thudding roar of the helicopter filled the air as it drew closer and settled into a hover, the downdraught from its rotors whipping up little white crests of foam off the water and making the raft’s plastic sheet bivouac crackle and flap.

  That was when Ben realised what he was looking at. It wasn’t a United Nations helicopter. And it wasn’t any kind of official coastguard rescue chopper, either. It was even older than the scarred Russian dinosaur of a seaplane that had carried him, Jeff and Tuesday from Hobyo. An ancient French Aérospatiale Puma medium transport/utility helicopter that had probably begun its long, hard military service life in the late sixties. It looked exactly like one of those countless thousands of aircraft that were thrashed and abused mercilessly as workhorses for decades on end in their countries of origin before being sold off as obsolete surplus and frequently ending up in the cobbled-together fleets of tin-pot Third World dictatorships and the like. It was painted in nondescript military matt green, but with no markings of any kind on its beaten-up fuselage. A ragged line of old bullet holes ran along its length, where it had been strafed by machine gun fire, once upon a time. Its side hatch was open. Black men with guns were crouched at the mouth of the hatch, looking down at them.

  Coastguard rescue helicopters didn’t go armed. Not as a rule.

  But then, it wasn’t here to rescue them. Not as such. Ben realised that now.

  The chopper came down lower, sending up a blast of spray off the sea.

  ‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ Tuesday yelled over the roar.

  From the co-pilot’s cabin window, a familiar face grinned down at them. Gleaming white teeth in an ebony face that looked like a vision from the centre of hell.

  Jean-Pierre Khosa had said he’d be back. And now he was.

  Chapter 34

  Hercules stopped jumping around and the smile vanished off his face. He stared up at the chopper. So did Gerber. Jude looked at Ben. Ben looked at Jeff. Jeff looked at the submachine gun and pistol that were stowed next to where he’d been sitting. He looked up at the helicopter, then back at Ben.

  Ben shook his head. He knew what Jeff was thinking, because he’d thought it too, as the reality of their situation had hit him. But only for a second. Because the reality of their situation could potentially become a lot worse if either of them made a move for a weapon. There were at least six guns pointing down at them from the open hatch of the Puma, and those were just the ones he could see. Any momentary notions of opening fire on the chopper in the hope of disabling the turbine or piercing some critical engine component or taking out the pilot had to be dismissed in the knowledge that the enemy’s finger was already on the trigger and that two or three quick strafes were all it would take to turn the raft into a floating slaughterhouse.

  Which, for now at least, left them little option but to stand very still with their hands empty and plainly visible while waiting to see what happened next. Everything depended on Khosa’s intentions. If they were of the ‘shoot on sight’ variety, Ben and the others would find out soon enough. If Khosa’s men fired first, then that would change everything. Ben had his first response to that scenario already figured out. Jude was to his right, the guns to his left. The submachine gun was the one to go for. In the instant Ben made a grab for it, he would kick out with his right boot and knock Jude into the water. Then, at least Jude would have a chance of evading the ensuing two-way firestorm. Better to take your chances with the sharks. Jude could survive this, even if Ben, Jeff, Tuesday, Gerber, Hercules and Condor didn’t. He could swim like a fish and hold his breath underwater like nobody Ben had ever seen. He could dive deep and come up behind the raft two, three minutes later. In the unlikely event that the gunfight lasted that long, he could use the raft as cover. In the more likely event that everyone else would be dead long before then, Jude could dive back down again and bob up for quick, furtive snatches of air every couple of minutes until Khosa went away.

  Because it was easy to figure out that Khosa wouldn’t stick around for long, once he had what he came for. Ben knew exactly what that was. It was the same thing everyone else wanted and would die trying to take for themselves. First Pender, then Scagnetti.

  Ben could feel the hard lump of the diamond nestling against his thigh. He’d virtually forgotten he was still carrying it. An unimaginable
fortune right there in his pocket. Enough money to purchase, equip and crew a large ship to take them all the way home to France, with enough change left over to buy a château or two there. The equivalent of enough stacks of paper money to sink their raft to the ocean bed. More weight than even the Aérospatiale Puma could handle. All things considered, it wasn’t so surprising what people would do to make it theirs.

  Ben wondered briefly whether the presence of the diamond gave him more options than he’d realised. What would Khosa do if Ben suddenly whipped the little leather pouch out of his pocket? Would he back off, fearful that Ben was about to do the unthinkable and throw it into the sea? At that moment, the diamond would become Ben’s hostage. Its value to Khosa would offer some leverage. But like all hostage scenarios, it would be a highly unstable situation. Because once established, the threat either had to be carried out, or not. If it was, then Khosa’s next move would be to order his men to kill everyone on board the raft, out of pure rage. Bad idea. If it wasn’t, Khosa had only to call the bluff, knowing that Ben couldn’t afford to lose the only ace he had up his sleeve.

  A no-win situation.

  So then Ben wondered what Khosa would do if the diamond was thrown into the helicopter instead, by way of a peace offering. The message would be clear enough: ‘Take what you came for and leave us in peace.’ It should work, in principle. Except not with a man like Khosa. Khosa would want his revenge for the humiliation he’d suffered at their hands, for the men he’d lost, and just because he was that kind of guy. He would still execute them all anyway. Another no-win situation.

  ‘What are we going to do?’ Jude said, staring at Ben.

  ‘That’s what I’m still trying to decide,’ Ben said.

  ‘And?’

  ‘And, I don’t think there’s anything we can do,’ Ben said. ‘Not yet. We have to see how this plays out.’

  ‘This bastard’s beginning to piss me off,’ Jeff said, scowling up at the chopper. ‘He so much as farts at us, he’s the first to cop it.’

  ‘I’m with you on that one, mate,’ Tuesday said.

  Jude’s face was strained with guilt and regret. ‘You were right. I should have listened to you back there. I should have let you kill him, while we had the chance. But all I could think about was helping them. I was an idiot.’

  ‘I admired you for your humanity,’ Ben replied. ‘And I still do. But now we need to think about how we’re getting out of this.’

  The chopper came closer, and closer, until its scarred olive-green underbelly was almost right overhead, hovering thirty feet above the water. It was turned side-on to them and shifting slightly left and right, up and down. The noise was huge, the screech of the turbine adding a cutting treble to the bass whap-whap-whap of the rotors. The downblast was whipping up the sea in a wide circle all around the raft, tearing at their hair and clothes and threatening to rip the plastic bivouac sheet off its tenuous mountings.

  Then two things happened.

  The first was that two of Khosa’s men started lowering a rope ladder from the helicopter’s open side. It wobbled and shook, dropping jerkily a foot at a time until it dangled within reach of the raft.

  The second was that Khosa himself appeared in the open hatch, grinning down at the survivors. He seemed to have found a replacement for the big revolver that Ben had taken from him aboard the ship, but the weapon was still holstered on his gunbelt. The object he was holding in his hand wasn’t a gun. He raised the megaphone to his mouth.

  Which made it look to Ben as though Khosa wanted to talk. Which, in turn, meant that his immediate intentions weren’t to kill them all. That might come later, but for now it seemed that some kind of parlay was about to begin. Whatever it was Khosa was about to lay on the table, Ben wanted to get there first.

  Chapter 35

  Before the African could speak, Ben pulled the leather pouch from his pocket and held it up above his head.

  ‘This is what you want,’ Ben called up to Khosa. He had to shout hard to be heard over the deafening noise of the helicopter. ‘You get no argument from us. It’s yours. I let you have it, you spare our lives. Do we have a deal?’

  ‘You’re just going to give it to him?’ Jude yelled at Ben.

  ‘Do we have a deal?’ Ben shouted up at the chopper.

  Khosa smiled behind the megaphone. ‘Oh, yes, we will have a deal. Thank you for keeping it for me, soldier.’ His voice was deep and resonant, its sonorous bass tones exaggerated over the loudspeaker. He lowered the megaphone and spoke briefly to the man on his right. Whatever was said, the man stared blankly at Khosa and listened. He didn’t show any reaction. He didn’t nod, because nodding would imply agreement, and agreement would imply that there was any notion of democracy going on here. If Khosa had told the man to jump into the sea, the man would have done it without hesitation. Or if Khosa had handed him a pistol and instructed him to blow out his own brains, he would have done that too.

  Instead, from the man’s response, Ben understood that Khosa had ordered him to climb down to the raft. With instant obedience the man slung his rifle over his shoulder on its sling, then lowered himself over the edge of the hatch so that his legs dangled in space. Then he grabbed hold of the sides of the rope ladder and twisted himself out and down and started scrabbling quickly down its length. Ben recognised him as one of the pirates they’d captured on board the Andromeda, except that he’d exchanged his loose, ripped T-shirt and frayed shorts for military khakis. He was the one of Khosa’s men to whom Ben had shown the controls for the MOB lifeboat before sending them all on their way. Doing the right thing.

  The man kept descending the ladder. He was only a skinny little guy, but the laws of physics were immutable. The further down he reached, the more his weight, combined with the side-to-side motion of the hovering chopper, made him sway like a pendulum. As he got to the bottom, he twisted his neck to look down, waiting for the right moment to let go. If he misjudged it, he’d be in the sea. Ben wanted to see that happen, especially if one of the sharks circling hidden beneath the surface happened to get lucky.

  But the man judged it correctly, and he let go of the ladder just as it was swinging towards the bottom and middle of its arc, and landed like a gymnast on his feet on the edge of the raft. The impact made the whole makeshift construction shake. The man quickly unslung his rifle and pointed it at Ben and the others. Technically unnecessary, with several more guns already aimed their way from above, but it was a dramatic gesture and Ben guessed the man wanted to look properly ferocious and aggressive in front of his commander. Or maybe he was just stupid.

  If he was, Khosa certainly wasn’t. Even from a position of complete strategic superiority, he was being careful. He raised the megaphone back to his mouth and called down, ‘Throw your weapons in the water.’

  Ben shrugged. It wasn’t as if he could do much anyway, under the circumstances. The guns were one step to his left. He replaced the leather pouch in his pocket, then held his arms out from his sides, palms splayed, and slowly crouched down. He could feel the hard lump of the diamond pressing against his thigh. No sudden moves. With great delicacy he reached for the weapons and picked one up in each hand, holding them by their barrels, butt-down, making a show of how harmless and well-intentioned he was. Not without some regret, he tossed the submachine gun over the edge of the raft and into the sea. Followed by the pistol. The smaller, lighter weapon made a smaller splash than the first. Ben gazed at the ripples and wistfully visualised the guns spiralling down to the ocean bed. Then he splayed out his arms again and stepped back, and glanced up at Khosa aboard the chopper as if to say, ‘Okay, what next?’

  ‘Now hand over my diamond,’ Khosa ordered from above.

  My diamond. As if it had been his all along. As if all he was doing here was rightfully reclaiming his lost property. Ben wondered if Khosa somehow actually believed that. Was he really that crazy?

  Ben thought so.

  But he had no idea at that moment how crazy Khosa truly was
. That was all set to change.

  Ben took the leather pouch back out of his pocket. Again, no sudden moves, no surprises, no whipping out of a concealed weapon with which he might miraculously redress the situation and save the day. Ben held out the pouch at arm’s length and took one step towards the man on the raft, who was watching Ben’s every twitch with his finger on the trigger. His face was covered in sweat and his eyes were wide with fear, as if he thought Ben could break his neck at any moment. Ben would gladly have proven him right. But even the most fragile deal was still a deal. For now, at any rate.

  The man wedged the butt of his rifle under his right armpit to support its weight, holding it one-handed while he edged forward and reached out with his left hand to snatch the leather pouch from Ben’s fingers. He did it furtively, anxiously, like a nervous but hungry dog overcoming its suspicion to accept a titbit from a potentially menacing stranger.

  In that moment, the diamond was back in Khosa’s possession. Ben’s pocket suddenly felt strangely empty. The man with the rifle stuffed the pouch into his pocket, slung his weapon back over his bony shoulder and turned to clamber up the rope ladder. Three seconds later, he was back aboard the helicopter and handing the pouch to his commander, who snatched it from him with imperious disdain and opened it to peer inside.

  A great glowing smile spread over Khosa’s scarred face. My diamond. Reunited at last.

  ‘Outstanding. There goes our only tactical advantage,’ Jeff muttered from behind Ben’s shoulder.

  Ben glanced back at him. ‘What would you have me do?’

  But Jeff was right, too. Now they were left with nothing. No weapons, no bargaining chips. Just their trust in the forbearance of their fellow man. It wasn’t a great feeling.

  Ben turned back to look up at the helicopter. Any moment now, he thought, they would find out whether or not Khosa was going to honour his side of the deal.

 
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