Star of africa, p.24
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       Star of Africa, p.24

           Scott Mariani
 

  Bad things had happened here. Maybe even worse things than could be done out in the open of the compound. The earth floor had soaked up the stench of it. The indelible scent of death from the terrible, inhuman atrocities that he could imagine taking place on this spot. And perhaps some that he didn’t want to imagine.

  Ben wasn’t surprised. It was all pretty much what he expected, and the reason could be summed up in the same three neat little letters he’d been running through his mind while observing Khosa’s soldiers. T.I.A.

  The acronym was a wry old saying often repeated all over this continent, by people who knew the score. To remind others that things here didn’t work the way they did elsewhere. To encourage them never to forget that when you set foot in this land you were suddenly in a very different place, where you had to forget everything you thought you knew about the world and the people in it.

  T.I.A. This Is Africa.

  All that really needed to be said. If you knew, you’d get it. If you didn’t, you soon would.

  The tall, broad figure of the commander filled the doorway, silhouetted against the dust-hazed light from outside. His booted feet braced a little apart, hands clasped against the small of his back, chest thrust proudly outwards. He nodded to his men, and they drew back from the prisoners. He walked into the building. More of his soldiers crowded through the doorway in his wake and spread out behind him with drawn weapons and scowling faces. Khosa himself was wearing a contented smile. As well a man should be, with an incalculable fortune in precious stones bulging his pocket and his enemies subdued and powerless before him.

  ‘I am General Jean-Pierre Khosa,’ he said to them. ‘Welcome to my army.’

  Chapter 40

  It was what Ben had been afraid Khosa was going to say. Why else hadn’t he ordered them to be killed after he’d got the diamond, or left them to die of thirst on their raft, or let his men shoot them to pieces after what Hercules had just done to one of their comrades?

  Ben took a deep breath. So now his suspicions were confirmed. He had to tell himself it wasn’t the end of the world. There were worse things than this, torture and execution being two of them. But there weren’t many.

  Gerber was the only one of the seven who spoke in the stunned silence. ‘You gotta be kidding.’

  Khosa turned to look at him. His smile had gone. He didn’t look at all as if he was kidding, and he didn’t look like someone used to being challenged or questioned, either. His men flashed glances at one another. A couple of them repressed grins. They knew their commander’s ways. They were looking forward to what would happen next.

  Ben was thinking the same thing they were. Keep your mouth shut, you bloody fool.

  Khosa walked slowly over to Gerber, stepping close until their faces were just inches apart. Except Khosa was a good four inches taller, so he was looking down and Gerber was looking up. Khosa’s eyes seemed to bore deep into him. Gerber swallowed. He couldn’t maintain the eye contact. He looked down at his feet and cleared his throat nervously.

  ‘This one is very old,’ Khosa pronounced after a long silence. ‘His legs are bandy, his belly is round and his beard is white. I have no use for a weak old man.’ He turned to his men. ‘And he looks like a goat. Do you not think he looks like a goat?’

  The men nodded and murmured their concurrence with the General’s wise opinion that the old man did indeed look just like a goat. Khosa seemed pleased. He gave a low chuckle. ‘Goats are for eating,’ he declared loudly. ‘They are animals to be slaughtered. For what do I need a goat man in my army?’

  Gerber kept looking down at his feet. He was gulping and sweating profusely.

  Ben had to speak out. ‘He’s a veteran of the American armed forces. A former non-commissioned officer of the United States Marine Corps. Marines don’t get weaker with age. They get tougher. He’s a more worthy warrior than half your men put together, General. Do yourself a favour.’

  Gerber looked at Ben in horror. Ben raised an eyebrow back at him. I just saved your life, old fellow.

  Khosa pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘That is interesting. United States Marines. Interesting.’ He considered Gerber a few moments more, then nodded. ‘We will see about you, Goat Man. Yes, we will see.’

  Khosa moved up the line, hands still clasped behind his back. The senior officer inspecting his troops. Next he stopped at Hercules. Now it was Khosa who had to look up. Hercules was shaking, but not for the same reason as Gerber. He looked ready to tear Khosa’s head off.

  ‘This one is very dangerous,’ Khosa said. ‘Perhaps we should not take a chance with him. Or perhaps he may still be of use to us. I have not decided.’

  The guards thought this was funny, but nobody laughed too loudly.

  Khosa moved along the line. Now he reached Jude, and smiled down at him with a look that could have been mistaken for benevolence if everyone in the room hadn’t known better. ‘He is a fine boy,’ Khosa said. He grinned at the soldiers. ‘Do you not agree he is a fine boy?’

  The soldiers all readily agreed that he was.

  ‘Yes, yes,’ Khosa chuckled. ‘Did I not tell you we would meet again soon, White Meat?’

  ‘Go to hell,’ Jude said, staring Khosa straight back in the eye. ‘I’m not a boy. And I’m not anybody’s meat.’

  Khosa boomed with laughter. ‘I like you, White Meat. You have changarawe. In my country, this means “guts”. I need men with guts.’

  Khosa moved on. He stopped at Tuesday, scrutinised him long and hard and then passed on without comment.

  Next Jeff. Jeff stared back at him with calm fury in his eyes. ‘This one is interesting too,’ Khosa said. ‘Look how he defies me. Many men would be very frightened of such a man. What is your name?’ he asked Jeff.

  ‘Dekker,’ Jeff said. ‘Remember it.’

  Khosa narrowed his eyes and the terrible scars on his face crinkled like rubber. ‘Do you think I am frightened of you, Dekker?’

  Jeff said nothing.

  ‘Are you frightened of me, Dekker?’

  Jeff said nothing.

  ‘You will be,’ Khosa said. ‘Soon, you will be.’

  Condor had been standing unaided too long. His knees gave way under him and he collapsed to the earth floor. He gave a heave and then lay still, his arms folded under him and one leg splayed outward.

  ‘What is the matter with this one?’ Khosa demanded, pointing down at the unconscious man.

  Ben spoke out again. ‘He has a severe concussion. He was injured when our ship went down. He needs a doctor, and rest. He’ll be fine in a few days. He’s a good man.’

  ‘He does not look fine to me,’ Khosa said, peering down. ‘Concussion. I know all about this. He does not need a doctor. I will test him myself.’

  What happened next was a surreal parody of a medical examination. Khosa crouched down next to Condor, leaned close to his ear and asked, ‘What is your name?’

  Condor made no reply. Not a sound. His eyes were closed and he barely even appeared to be breathing.

  Khosa looked up. ‘He does not know his name,’ he said with a look of consternation that Ben couldn’t tell was real or put on. ‘Who is the president of your country?’ Khosa asked Condor.

  No response.

  Khosa looked up. ‘He does not know who the president is?’

  ‘He’s unconscious,’ Ben said. ‘Give the man a chance.’

  Khosa grunted. Then asked Condor, ‘Now tell me. Look at me. Who am I?’

  Once more, Condor gave no response. His eyelids opened a glimmer, then closed again.

  ‘How can he not know who I am?’ Khosa said, straightening up and shaking his head with what Ben now believed was genuine incredulity. ‘It is very serious. The man has brain damage. You do not need to be a doctor to know this.’

  ‘With respect, General,’ Ben said, choosing his words cautiously. ‘It’s just a grade three concussion.’

  Khosa shook his head once more, gravely. ‘He is a cripple. No. How do you say? He is a
vegetable. I have no use for a vegetable in my army. This,’ he declared, pointing down at Condor, ‘is not acceptable.’

  Then Khosa signalled to his men. ‘Kill him.’

  ‘You can’t do that,’ Ben said. He took one step towards Khosa and half a dozen Kalashnikov rifles instantly snapped in his direction, and he froze before he could take a second step.

  ‘Are you telling me what I can and cannot do, soldier?’ Khosa asked in a voice silk-lined with menace.

  ‘Please,’ Gerber said. ‘You want to kill someone, then kill me. I’m old. Just like you said. I’m no use to anyone.’

  Khosa laughed. ‘Maybe you are right, Goat Man. Perhaps afterwards we kill you too. What do you think?’

  And then they dragged Condor into the middle of the floor and got started on him.

  Ben had seen plenty of men meet a bad end before now. He’d witnessed ugly, brutal death up close and personal, more times than he cared to remember. But he’d never seen anything like this. And he never wanted to see anything like it again.

  Chapter 41

  Condor didn’t regain consciousness right away. Not when the four men grabbed him by the wrists and ankles and hauled him like a sack of rice across the floor. Not when they rolled him over on his back, and not when all four of them drew their machetes from their belts and stood around him in a circle, grinning down at him with glints of dental gold catching what little light was inside the building.

  But when the first chopping blade cut into his flesh, the pain and shock jolted Condor out of his semi-coma and he started to scream.

  The screaming went on for several minutes. It could have been much quicker, but Khosa’s men were experts in prolonging things.

  Lou Gerber sank to his knees and vomited. Jude had his eyes screwed shut and his fingers in his ears to block out the chopping sounds and the awful tortured wailing. Hercules had his head bowed with his chin on his chest and his big fists clenched and trembling at his sides. Even Jeff had to look away. Tuesday watched it all from beginning to end, unable to tear his gaze away, as if frozen into a trance of horror.

  Ben’s eyes stayed on General Jean-Pierre Khosa the whole time.

  The blades kept rising and falling and hacking and chopping in the hands of the silent killers. Condor’s screams reached a sickening pitch that didn’t even sound human any more. Then, mercifully but much, much too long afterwards, they died to a gurgling whimper. Then finally to nothing.

  By the time Khosa’s four men stepped away, panting with exertion and mahogany-shined with sweat and sheathing their bloody blades, Condor wasn’t Condor any more. He was an unrecognisable heap of diced meat and exposed innards and separated body parts and tattered shreds of clothing at the centre of a huge dark stain that soaked deep into the earth.

  Gerber was curled up on his knees with his arms wrapped around himself, racked with sobbing. ‘Tell the goat man to stand,’ Khosa ordered, pointing at him. Slowly, very slowly, Ben and Jeff took Gerber’s arms and gently pulled him upright. Gerber stood bent and bowed, suddenly a very old man.

  ‘I want you to look,’ Khosa said, swivelling his pointing finger away from Gerber and towards the remains of Condor. ‘Look, and remember. This is what happens to men who do not make the grade in my army.’

  None of them did look, but they would always remember.

  It’s nothing next to what will happen to you, Ben was thinking. The stench of death and vomit in the building was sharp and acrid and he had to control his own desire to throw up. He put a hand on Jude’s shoulder. Jude’s muscles were as tight as rope and his skin felt cold through the damp material of his T-shirt.

  ‘And now,’ Khosa said brightly, spreading his arms wide like a TV conjuror who’d just wowed his audience with a spectacular trick, ‘the show is over. I am sure that my new recruits are hungry and thirsty. We have a long journey ahead of us and I want all my soldiers to have their strength.’

  Seven prisoners had gone into the building. Six came out. Now it was Gerber who needed to be held by the arm to steady him as he walked, like a survivor pulled unscathed but badly shaken from the rubble of an earthquake. His eyes were glazed and he was still trembling violently. Ben was trembling too, not with shock but with rage. He couldn’t look at Jeff. He knew that if he did, that if they exchanged even the slightest glance, the two of them would do something reckless. Nobody spoke. Nobody could find words to say what they were feeling.

  Khosa strode out ahead of them and went off in the direction of the fuel truck to attend to whatever business he needed there. A V-formation of his soldiers trailed closely in his wake, including the four who had just finished hacking a sick, defenceless man to death. Now they were back to their regular duty, until the next time. The General’s personal guard, rifles held in the low-ready position as if expecting a horde of assassins to attack the perimeter at any moment.

  A larger group of soldiers led by the nose picker escorted the prisoners across a stretch of open ground to another long, low, windowless building on the same side of the avenue. The prone body of the fat soldier that Hercules had laid flat was no longer there. He’d either managed to crawl away, or he’d been dragged away. The only remaining sign of him was a patch of blood on the dusty ground. Ben gave it a brief glance and then looked away. He’d seen enough blood-soaked earth today.

  But however sickened he might have felt by what they’d all just witnessed, the smell of cooking wafting out of the open doorway as they approached the building made Ben feel dizzy. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten anything.

  This building wasn’t in much better condition than the first, but at least there were no dismembered bodies inside. Ben was beginning to realise that Khosa’s unit had adopted the derelict compound as a forward operating base away from home, wherever home was. Ben’s army unit had set up camp in a hundred similar locations in a dozen countries. The avenue between the buildings most likely served as a rough kind of drill or assembly ground. One of the buildings either side of it was probably being used as a barracks hut for the men. The best of them was presumably the CO’s personal quarters, while the worst of them would be the camp latrines.

  This one was being used as a makeshift cookhouse and mess, Africa-style. The building’s dank, dark interior was dimly lit by oil lamps hanging from nails in the walls. Some wooden tables and benches had been knocked up out of whatever bits of timber had been lying around. A large battered cauldron of some kind of homogenous brown stew was bubbling and simmering on a portable stove. The smell of the food was mingled with the petroleum fumes of whatever fuel the stove was burning up, and the unmistakable oily stink of paraffin lamps being run on diesel. A fog of smoke drifted and swirled overhead.

  They were made to sit at a table. Guns surrounded them. Not the most comfortable mess facilities Ben had ever seen, but marginally better than the slaughterhouse they’d just come from. The nose picker marched over to their table carrying an aluminium water canteen, which he slammed down on the tabletop in front of them. ‘You drink.’

  Ben picked it up, unscrewed the nozzle and tasted the water first, to ensure it was fit for consumption. It was, just about. ‘Go easy,’ he told Jude as he passed the canteen to him. ‘Take it in small sips or you’ll be sick.’ Standard SAS survival advice to any trooper who had been deprived of water for too long.

  Jude refused the water, even though his lips were parched and cracked from dehydration. He took the canteen from Ben and passed it across to Gerber. Gerber ignored the offer and kept doing what he was doing, which was staring emptily at the tabletop like a man who’d just been told he had inoperable cancer.

  ‘Drink it, Lou, for God’s sake,’ Jude said strongly. ‘You want to end up like Condor?’

  Gerber flinched at the words. He shot Jude a hesitant glance. Then slowly reached out with a hand that was still shaking from traumatic shock, took the canteen and raised it to his mouth for a few choking sips. He wiped the nozzle with his hand and then passed it to Hercules.
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  ‘I won’t take water from these motherfuckers,’ Hercules said, crossing his huge arms and leaning back on the bench. ‘Not one solitary drop. I’ll die first.’

  ‘Then the rest of us know who we can rely on,’ Ben said. ‘Or not. If you want to live, you’re one of us. If you don’t, you’re on your own. That’s how things are going to work between us from now on. Because we need to be able to depend on each other one hundred and ten percent if any one of us has a chance of getting out of this alive. We need to be strong for each other. We need to be a team. And team members all drink from the canteen, or they get left behind. I want you on my team, Hercules. What do you say, Jeff?’

  ‘Damn right,’ Jeff growled. ‘Every inch of the way.’

  ‘And me,’ Tuesday said.

  ‘Your choice,’ Ben said. ‘Live or die. Starting now.’

  Hercules stared at him. He nodded. Took the canteen and drank from it, spluttered and sighed and smacked his lips and passed it on. The canteen went all around the table. Jude was the last to drink.

  When the canteen was empty, the nose picker came back over to the table carrying a mess tray. He banged it down in the middle. On it were six bowls of the steaming concoction from the cauldron. A tin spoon had been stabbed into the centre of each bowl and stood upright in the thick stew.

  ‘I hope this guy’s not expecting a tip for service like this,’ Jeff said. ‘He could get a job at the greasy spoon caff I used to go to in Islington.’

  ‘You eat,’ the nose picker said, jabbing a finger at the bowls.

  Ben peered at the food. It was a thick, glutinous, lumpy morass of boiled-down beans and some kind of shredded dark meat.

  ‘It is goat,’ the nose picker said. He smiled and pointed at Gerber. ‘Like him.’

  The rest of the soldiers thought this was hysterically funny. Laughter filled the mess hut.

  ‘I’m not hungry,’ Jude said.

 
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