Star of africa, p.22
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       Star of Africa, p.22

           Scott Mariani

  And a moment later, they had their answer.

  Chapter 36

  Even at this distance, Khosa’s victorious smile was brighter than the burning hot sun that was bearing down on them out of the cloudless sky. He gave the leather pouch a loving squeeze in his fist, as if savouring the knowledge of what was inside. Then he tucked the pouch into the pocket of his combat jacket and raised the megaphone to his mouth once more.

  ‘Thank you, soldier,’ the big voice boomed out over the blast of the chopper. ‘Now you will all come with me.’

  ‘Oh, shit,’ Tuesday said. Gerber and Hercules exchanged terse glances. Jude turned suddenly pale. Jeff ground his jaw tighter.

  ‘That wasn’t the deal,’ Ben shouted up. ‘You have the diamond. Now leave us.’

  Khosa’s amplified laughter roared down at them like thunder. ‘I said we would have a deal, soldier. My deal. Take it, or die. It is your choice.’

  Ben looked at Jeff. Jeff wasn’t saying anything.

  ‘Good,’ chuckled the booming voice from above. ‘Now you will all climb aboard. Starting with the boy.’

  Ben looked uncertainly at Jude. Jude returned his glance. What do I do? his expression read.

  ‘The boy first,’ Khosa repeated over the megaphone. ‘Or he dies first.’ Without looking back over his shoulder, he snapped his fingers theatrically and two of his men instantly appeared to the left and right of him, rifles shouldered and trained on Jude. With the up-down, side-to-side drift of the chopper their aim couldn’t be that steady or precise. But with their weapons set to fully-automatic fire, it didn’t need to be.

  ‘Remember I said I had a bad feeling about this?’ Tuesday said. ‘It just got worse.’

  ‘What does that maniac want with us?’ Gerber asked.

  Ben said, ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘I do,’ Hercules said. ‘He’s gonna put a bullet in our asses one by one.’

  Jeff shook his head. ‘Nothing stopping him from doing that right now. He doesn’t need us in the chopper for it.’

  Hercules gave a snort. ‘Then he’s plannin’ to chop off our fuckin’ arms and drop us in the sea for sport with the fuckin’ sharks.’

  Ben looked at them. ‘Whatever we find up there, whatever his intentions are, we’ll deal with it. One step at a time. Jeff’s right. If he wanted us dead, we’d be dead. Something tells me he has something else in mind.’

  ‘We’re wasting time here,’ Jude said. ‘Let’s get this over with.’ He stepped to the edge of the raft and reached out for the swaying ladder. Using his uninjured hand to grab hold of the bottom aluminium rung, he pulled it towards him. He put a foot on the rung and tested it with his weight, like testing a stirrup before mounting a horse. The thick nylon cord stretched and wobbled, but it could have held many times Jude’s weight.

  Jude began to climb, a little gingerly because of his cut palm. Ben’s heart was in his throat and his fists were clenched at his sides, and there was nothing he could do but watch helplessly as Jude ascended rung by rung towards the open hatch and the pointing rifles above him. As Jude reached the top, sinewy hands reached down and grabbed him by the arms and hauled him aboard the helicopter. Jude and Khosa disappeared from view. For a terrible moment or two, Ben was frightened that the aircraft was going to fly away. But then Khosa reappeared at the mouth of the hatch and pointed down at Jeff. ‘Now that one,’ he boomed down through the megaphone.

  ‘Whatever happens,’ Jeff said to Ben.

  Ben nodded. ‘Whatever happens.’

  Jeff climbed, with the practised ease of a guy who had shinnied up a thousand ropes and ladders into a thousand helicopters in his time. He reached the top quicker than Jude had. With two rifles at his head he was yanked inside the hatch and disappeared as well.

  Next, it was Tuesday’s turn. Then Condor’s. Ben and Gerber helped him to his feet and steadied him as he stumbled towards the waiting ladder.

  ‘I can’t do it,’ Condor gasped.

  ‘You gotta try, buddy,’ Gerber told him, clutching his shoulder. ‘I’ll be right there behind you.’

  Condor inched his way up the ladder like a half-crushed spider crawling up its web in search of a place to die. Khosa was frowning impatiently down at him. Twice, Condor lost his footing and almost fell into the sea. When he eventually made it to the top rung, the Africans dragged him roughly aboard and virtually threw him inside. Gerber went next. Then Hercules, his bulky weight making the ladder swing wildly, the bewildered parrot still peeking its head out of his pocket.

  Ben was the last man off the raft. He wasn’t sorry to leave it behind, but he wasn’t happy about where he was going, either. At the top of the ladder he batted aside the guns that pointed in his face, and clambered to his feet inside the cargo area. He looked around him.

  The interior of the Puma was exactly how he remembered them from his military days. The exact opposite of Auguste Kaprisky’s Gulfstream. Even more spartan than the Soviet seaplane. The inward-curving interior walls and riveted seams of the fuselage had been painted the same dull olive green as the outside, but many years ago, and were mostly worn and scuffed down to the bare metal. The floor was sheet aluminium, grimed with layers of filth and oil. Rudimentary folding seats were bolted along the length of the cargo bay, either side of a narrow aisle that passed through a narrower hatch into the cockpit. The inside of the chopper was completely uninsulated from the noise of the turbine. Totally utilitarian in every respect. Nothing much in the way of creature comforts, especially with a bunch of aggressive Africans pointing loaded and cocked automatic weapons at you.

  There were five of them, including the skinny one who had come down to the raft. The ubiquitous AK-47s all round, except for the fat one who was armed with a black Remington combat shotgun. All were attired in the same thrown-together military uniforms. Ben couldn’t remember all their faces, whether they’d been with Khosa aboard the Andromeda or whether they were fresh troops he’d picked up ashore. If fresh was the right word to describe them. They looked as worn out with fear as they looked desperate as they looked ragged.

  Their weapons jabbed and prodded Ben to an empty fold-down seat between Hercules and Gerber, opposite where Jeff was already sitting with Jude to his right and Condor to his left. Jude was staring blankly into space, apparently lost in his own thoughts.

  Condor wasn’t looking good. He could barely sit up and kept listing sideways to his left to lean on Tuesday, who was leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees, rigid with tension and all keyed up, glancing constantly at Ben and Jeff for some kind of guidance. What do we do?

  Khosa had made his way forward to the cockpit and returned to the co-pilot’s seat. All Ben could see of him was one wide shoulder and the back of his head from a rear-three-quarter angle as he turned to give some unheard instruction to the pilot. What was going on inside that head, Ben still had no idea. But whatever Khosa had planned for them, at least they were still alive.

  Right now, that seemed about as much as anyone could wish for.

  Chapter 37

  One of Khosa’s men hauled the rope ladder aboard and flung it carelessly into a corner. The fat one with the shotgun slammed the hatch shut, and then they all stalked forward to fill the four remaining seats at the front of the facing rows while the fifth made do with the floor.

  The pilot had had his orders. He worked the controls and the turbine screech grew even more deafening inside the bare metal fuselage as the helicopter broke out of its hover and wheeled and banked away, nose down and tail up under acceleration, carving upwards into the sky and pressing rapidly on towards its unknown destination. Unless Khosa had an aircraft carrier cruising somewhere off the east African coast, Ben presumed they were heading for land. There was none of that for fifteen hundred miles to the south, when they would hit Madagascar. None of it for over three thousand miles due east until Sumatra, and north would take them straight back towards Oman. In any case, the Puma’s fuel capacity wouldn’t allow for a fraction of that dista
nce, especially taking into account the large quantity that Khosa must have already burned up in searching for them over thousands of square miles of ocean. The chopper must be pretty much running on fumes by now, which strongly supported the logic that they must be heading west, back to the Somali coast.

  Except that neither Khosa nor his men were Somali. That implied that their ultimate destination lay further inland. Ben had the map of Africa pretty well imprinted on his memory from all the times he’d been deployed there, back in the day. Neighbouring Kenya was the nearest of the Swahili-speaking countries. The furthest away was probably Zambia, though the southern tip of Mozambique lay as far to the south as Johannesburg. An enormous distance away, half the length of an enormous continent. There was no way to know the answer, except to wait and see.

  But to passively await whatever fate Khosa had in store for them all was something Ben had no intention of doing. Glancing across the narrow aisle at Jeff and Tuesday and seeing the looks on their faces, Ben knew that both of them were thinking exactly the same thoughts as he was.

  Whatever we find up there, we’ll deal with it.

  Nobody spoke. The noise levels inside the helicopter would have made conversation impossible anyway. Ben looked at Jude and tried to catch his eye so that he could say, or mouth, something reassuring like ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ But Jude seemed lost in another world, slumped in his seat with the same thousand-yard stare directed at the green metal wall opposite him.

  Ben was worried about Condor. He wasn’t at all well, and had lapsed back into unconsciousness. As the pilot shifted course a few degrees and the aircraft banked a little to the right, Condor suddenly pitched forwards. Before anyone could stop him, he slumped right out of his seat and flopped to the bare metal floor like a sack of washing. The nearest of the guards rose half to his feet, pointing his weapon as if ready for the sick man to spring up at him with a knife.

  ‘Our friend is injured,’ Ben told the guard in Swahili, yelling to be heard. ‘He needs a doctor.’

  The guy just stared at Ben, then shrugged as if it were nothing, and sat back down. Hercules and Gerber helped Condor back to his seat, watched closely by all five guards. ‘You’re gonna be fine, bud,’ Gerber shouted in Condor’s ear. ‘Hang in there, you hear me?’ Whether Condor heard or not, it was hard to tell.

  The chopper thudded on. Sea miles passing beneath them. The old Puma had a never-exceed speed of 147 knots, or 169 miles per hour. Its cruising speed was 134 knots, equating to 154 miles per hour. Still pretty damn fast, even if the pilot took it easy for the sake of fuel economy. By Ben’s very rough calculations, the Somali coast couldn’t be more than an hour away. If his guess was right, Khosa was planning on landing as soon as possible, to refuel or else to transfer his prisoners to some other form of transportation.

  Either way, when they landed they were sure to be met by more of Khosa’s troops. Ben couldn’t believe that the African had come looking for them with just five soldiers and one helicopter. The RV could be with ten more men, or it could be with thirty, or more. And as much of a slackly trained raggle-taggle militia as they might be, the kind of force that real soldiers would laugh off, it would be a lot harder for Ben, Jeff and Tuesday to deal with upwards of thirty or forty men than with just five, plus Khosa and the pilot.

  That knowledge was in Jeff’s expression, too. They both knew that if they were going to make a move, it had to be sooner rather than later.

  With that in mind, Ben and Jeff struck up an urgent back-and-forth dialogue, the way that only two people who knew each other so well and were tuned to the very same wavelength could. The conversation was all contained in tiny shifts of head carriage and body language and eye movements that would have been all but undetectable to anyone watching them, but it was as clear and precise as if they’d been two top brass officers discussing military strategy across a table in a war room, with maps and charts spread out between them and little models placed here and there to denote the movement of enemy troops.

  Jeff’s eyes said, The clock is ticking, mate. Now or never.

  Ben’s said, I know.

  Jeff’s said, We can do it. So are you up for it?

  What about Tuesday?

  We make our move, he’ll follow us. Trust him.

  All right. But it’s got to be quick.

  It’ll be quicker than quick.

  Ben cast a quick glance down the aisle at the soldiers. All five of them were relaxed and off their guard. The four who were seated were twiddling their thumbs like bored commuters on their regular subway train ride to the office. The one sitting on the floor had his AK butt-down on the floor between his feet, with the barrel resting loosely against his shoulder. He had a finger up his nose and seemed entirely focused on retrieving and eating whatever he could ream out of his nostril. Not the most finely tuned fighting unit Ben had ever seen. Which potentially made things very much easier, if this was to have any chance of a favourable conclusion.

  Ben’s eyes darted back to meet Jeff’s. All right. You take the nearest one on the left and use his gun to shoot the fat one at the end of your row. I take the nearest one on the right and use his gun to shoot the skinny one at the end of my row.

  Jeff’s chin rose and fell by about half a millimetre. That’ll work.

  Ben’s eyes said, That just leaves the nose picker on the end. Whoever’s finished with the others first gets to him before he gets to his rifle. Agreed?

  Jeff threw a discreet look in the nose picker’s direction, and the nasty twinkle in his eyes said, He won’t be a problem.

  Ben took another glance, this time up the narrow aisle and through the hatch into the cockpit. Khosa and the pilot were still talking. Eyes front, completely distracted by whatever they were looking at through the windscreen. Ben looked back at Jeff and gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod that was as expressive as if he’d jumped to his feet and screamed, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’

  Jeff nodded back. It was agreed. For a few seconds the two of them prepared themselves, mentally and physically, to explode into action. Each had his own way of handling it. Jeff was winding up like a steel spring, as intense as a racehorse waiting for the gate to open on Derby day. Ben’s own heartbeat was dropping. His muscles relaxing. A familiar calm descending on him, in the certain knowledge that he would move fast, and hit hard, and strike with accuracy. Getting the weapons from the guards was theoretically going to be the hardest part, and the biggest danger was from the fat one’s shotgun. One blast from that thing could kill all of them. But surprise was on their side. Once the five were permanently out of action, it would just be a question of getting to Khosa before Khosa could draw that big revolver of his and get his bulk twisted round in the co-pilot’s seat to be able to get off a shot. A lot depended on Khosa’s speed of reflexes and combat readiness. Risky, but not impossible. Not by a long stretch. Ben didn’t foresee too many problems there. As for the pilot, he’d have a gun to his head before he’d fully registered what was even happening.

  Hijack complete. Five seconds from start to finish. Six, on the outside.

  Ben felt ready. He moved his right hand to his right knee and splayed three fingers. On my count of three.

  Jeff nodded.

  Ben mouthed, ‘One’.

  Jeff waited.

  Ben mouthed, ‘Two’.

  Tuesday was watching them with huge eyes, understanding that something was about to happen, and holding his breath. He knew. He could feel it. He’d been there before. It was the pulse-pounding moment before the eruption into all-out balls-to-the-wall combat, when the lips were dry and the whole body was tingling and the senses were ready to burst with anticipation of the green light and the command GO GO GO, from which there was no turning back. Adrenalin running so thick and fast through your blood that you could taste it, just one of a whole hormone cascade pushing alertness and reflex speeds through the roof, pumping blood to the skeletal muscle, preparing the body to ignore pain and injury, dilating the p
upils to draw in maximum light. Excitement and terror intermingled into a heady cocktail like no other sensation on earth.

  Ben pursed his lips to mouth, ‘Three’.

  Then something happened that nobody had expected.

  Chapter 38

  Khosa suddenly did something very strange. He broke off as sharply from his conversation with the pilot as if a rifle shot had cracked out behind him. He turned in his seat, leaning so that he could peer back out of the cockpit and down the aisle. His eyes went straight to Ben and fixed him with a look of complete knowing. Seeming to bore right through Ben’s head and penetrate his mind. A brief, peculiar smile twisted his grotesque features.

  Ben stared back at the African, feeling as if he’d been caught out. The conspirators nabbed red-handed around their table as the secret police kicked in the door and burst in on the clandestine meeting.

  Khosa’s smile dropped. He got to his feet quickly, ducked out of the cockpit and moved up the aisle, steadying himself against the pitch and sway of the helicopter. His revolver was out of its holster and clenched in his fist. It was a monster handgun, a .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda, an exact duplicate of the one Ben had flung off the deck of the Andromeda. His men all snapped to attention like soldiers on inspection, and snatched up their weaponry. Khosa barely glanced at them, instead glaring at Ben, then at Jeff, then up and down the facing rows of seats at the rest of the prisoners. His gaze seemed to linger on Jude for a moment.

  Sensing that something was up, though oblivious of what it could be, Jude was startled out of his reverie and looked up in confusion. Gerber and Hercules did the same. Condor was too out of it to be doing much of anything.

  Khosa barked a command to his men that Ben couldn’t make out over the noise of the turbine. But his men heard it fine, and obeyed instantly. The nose picker and the skinny one stalked over to where Jude was sitting, grabbed his arms, one either side, and yanked him out of his seat and dragged him to his feet and started marching him up the aisle towards the nose of the aircraft. The other three had their guns up and pointed straight at Ben. Ben froze. Not breathing. Heart stopped.

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