Star of africa, p.25
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       Star of Africa, p.25

           Scott Mariani
 
‘Nor me,’ Hercules growled. ‘And if I was, I wouldn’t touch this shit nohow.’

  Normally, Gerber would have waded right in there with a crack about Hercules’s cooking. He said nothing.

  Ben grabbed a bowl off the tray and slid it across the table towards himself. Snatched up the spoon and took a mouthful. The trick was not to think too much about how it tasted, or what it might contain apart from goat and beans. He chewed and swallowed and shovelled up another steaming spoonful. Jeff grabbed a bowl and dived in, eating hungrily. Tuesday hesitated, then followed their example.

  Jude watched the three of them in horror. ‘How can you eat? After we just saw Con— after what just happened?’

  ‘I’d advise you to get it down you,’ Ben said between spoonfuls. ‘Number one rule is, eat when you can, drink when you can, sleep when you can. Your future trainers in Special Forces will tell you the same thing.’

  Jude made no reply.

  ‘I went to Sweden once,’ Jeff said through a mouthful of stew. ‘If you can swallow their surströmming, you can swallow this stuff. It’s really not all that bad.’

  ‘Everyone eat,’ Ben urged them. ‘Khosa’s right when he says we’re going to need our strength. Like he said, this isn’t the end of the line. We have a trip ahead of us.’

  ‘Where is he taking us?’ Jude asked.

  ‘Beats me,’ Jeff said.

  ‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ Tuesday said.

  Jude reluctantly took a small spoonful of stew and ate it, pulling a face. ‘I’m not waiting. I want to know.’ He stabbed the spoon back into the bowl and turned to face the nose picker, who was standing over them like a kennel-hand at feeding time. ‘Hey, you. What’s this journey we’re being taken on?’ Jude asked him.

  ‘The General is bringing you home,’ the nose picker replied with a grin that was more like a sneer. ‘Long, long way. Very far from here.’

  ‘Well, there’s your answer,’ Jeff said.

  But it wasn’t good enough to satisfy Jude. ‘Home? What’s home?’ he said to the nose picker. ‘Hey. Oi. Didn’t you hear me? I asked you where your so-called general is taking us.’

  ‘Watch it, Jude,’ Ben said softly. There was a ripple of annoyance passing through the crowd of soldiers, and too many Kalashnikovs pointing at Jude for him to start getting arsy.

  ‘Ask him yourself, White Meat,’ the nose picker said.

  The soldiers filtered aside as their commander appeared in the doorway and walked into the mess hut. Khosa strode up to the table. ‘I am pleased to see you eating. The food is to your liking?’ He laughed, then waved a hand at Ben as if to order him to stand. Ben ignored him, scraped up the last spoonful of stew from his bowl and took his time eating it. Only when he’d swallowed it did he lay down his spoon and slowly rise to his feet.

  ‘Come with me, soldier,’ Khosa said. ‘I wish to speak to you. Alone.’

  Chapter 42

  Jude, Jeff, Tuesday, Gerber and Hercules all watched in silence as Ben followed Khosa towards the doorway. The General paused to snap a command at the soldiers in Swahili. ‘Guard them closely. Especially the boy.’

  Outside, the sun was sinking and cooling a little as evening set in. Ben’s T-shirt didn’t immediately stick to his skin, and he didn’t have to shade his eyes with his hand. The four men acting as Khosa’s personal guard formed a tight semicircle behind him, their weapons pointing at his back. Khosa led the way from the mess hut, across the beaten-earth avenue and past the parked choppers and the fuel truck to the smallest of the buildings on the far side. It was the one in the best state of repair, the one Ben had guessed a unit using this place as a forward operating base would designate as the CO’s temporary quarters.

  He’d been right about that, though the place was less than palatial. Like the others, the building consisted of a single, unpartitioned room. It smelled of mildew, stale cigar smoke and another tangy odour that was familiar to Ben but which he couldn’t put his finger on. The floor was concrete, the walls bare. It was minimally furnished, even by military standards. There was no bunk. Maybe Khosa didn’t sleep here, Ben thought. Maybe he never slept at all. A folding metal table was set up in one corner, with a folding metal chair next to it. On the table lay a walkie-talkie handset, a GPS navigation device, a half-smoked Cohiba Gran Corona resting in a carved ebony ashtray, and the assorted rods and brushes and solvents of a cleaning kit for a handgun. Now Ben recognised the odd smell.

  ‘Hoppe’s Number Nine,’ Khosa said grandly, picking up a small labelled bottle and brandishing it as though it were the elixir of life. ‘The finest bore-cleaner in the world, manufactured since 1903, specially imported from America. I never travel without it. It removes all trace of powder fouling, lead and copper and brings everything up so nicely. Do you not say so, soldier?’ To make his point he drew the magnum revolver from his holster, twirled it cowboy-style around his finger and gazed lovingly at the bright, burnished stainless steel of his cherished weapon.

  ‘I’ll have to make a note to get myself some for Christmas,’ Ben said.

  Khosa chuckled. ‘For Christmas. That is a good one. You know, soldier, you have upset me very much. This was a matched pair of Colts. Custom engraved and specially accurised, with handles of genuine mammoth ivory. Now I only have one, thanks to you. But I am prepared to find it in my heart to forgive you.’

  ‘That’s awfully decent of you, General,’ Ben said.

  Khosa twirled the Colt back into his holster and stepped towards Ben, until he was less than a foot away. He was an inch taller than Ben, maybe two. Ben’s shoulders were broad from the regular routine of two hundred press-ups a day that he’d stuck to for years, but Khosa’s were broader by at least four inches. He was a powerful man and an imposing presence, even more so up close. The horribly scarred face topped it all, like a nightmarish mask from which his wide-set eyes bored penetratingly into Ben’s. The temptation was to look away, but Ben had never looked away from a challenge in his life.

  Instead, Ben was thinking of how easily he could kill this man. If Khosa was a tiger, Ben was a panther. Ben could have killed him before he even knew he was dead. An elbow to the throat, crushing his trachea. Faster than fast. Then the revolver would be out of the holster and in Ben’s hand, and one of those big forty-four-calibre slugs would be on its way to Khosa’s brainpan at about fifteen hundred feet per second. One shot was all it would take to end this and go home.

  But then Ben thought about the four, or six, or eight high-powered rifles that were pointing at Jude’s head at this moment.

  Not good. Not wise.

  It would have to wait, just a little longer. The time would come.

  ‘You would like to kill me,’ Khosa said with a knowing look.

  ‘Whatever gives you that idea?’

  Khosa smiled. ‘I perceive many things, soldier. It is my gift to understand what goes on inside a man’s head. I can see much in you. You are a warrior of great skill, and you do not fear any man. I respect this very much. That is why I wished to talk to you alone. Because you and I have business together.’

  ‘I doubt that,’ Ben said.

  ‘Never doubt me,’ Khosa said. ‘I am a man of my word. What is your name, soldier?’

  ‘Hope. Ben Hope. Not that it’s any of your damn business.’

  Khosa nodded. ‘You are named after a mountain in Scotland. Perhaps this is what makes you strong. Are you from Scotland, soldier?’

  ‘My mother was from Ireland. Not that that’s any of your damn business, either.’

  ‘A fine country. I know it very well. This surprises you, I see. You think I am just a stupid, uneducated African peasant, do you not, soldier? You will learn that I am nothing of that kind.’

  ‘Nice place you have here,’ Ben said, looking around him. ‘Very swish. Like your air force. State of the art. The envy of the world and enough to make any superpower tremble in its boots. I take it you see yourself as some kind of great military leader. But all I see is a murdering sack of
lowlife shit in a mongrel uniform. And someone I wouldn’t do business with in a thousand years. So whatever it is you have to say, you can save your breath and stick it up your arse instead.’

  Khosa’s smile dropped. The wide-set eyes seemed to burn with a dark light Ben could almost feel on his face. ‘Very few men would speak to me this way. Those who have dared to defy me now lie rotting in the dirt, their bones scattered and chewed by animals.’

  ‘Except this one,’ Ben said. ‘And that’s the way it’s going to stay. I’ll still be here a long, long time after the world’s had the pleasure of forgetting your ugly mug ever existed.’

  Khosa boggled at him in utter astonishment. Then he threw his head back and roared with mirth. His laughter boomed and echoed through the building. His whole body shook and doubled up with it. He laughed so hard that he choked and spluttered and had to rest his hands on his knees as tears rolled through the furrows of scar tissue on his cheeks.

  ‘Oh, oh,’ Khosa gasped, and wiped the tears away. ‘You are a very unusual fellow. Such boldness and insubordination, I have never seen. I should have my men take you out there and put you against a wall and shoot you as a punishment. But there is a time and place for everything. Do you not think?’

  ‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Ben said.

  ‘And this is not your time. I like you, soldier. Yes, I like you very much. I wish for you to live for many more years. Just as you say.’

  ‘I’m so delighted to hear it,’ Ben said. ‘But you’re wrong about me, General. I’m just a man. I’m not a soldier. Not any more.’

  Khosa wiped away the last of his tears and studied Ben intently. ‘A man cannot hide what he is. Nobody has ever defeated me the way you did on that ship. You appeared from nowhere. You exploded my boat and killed many of my men. Zolani Tembe was my best fighter, yet you squashed him like a worm.’ Khosa clapped his hands together to illustrate the point. ‘Three men did this. Three! It takes a special kind of adversary to get the better of me. Tell me, Ben Hope. Your accent is not American. You served in the British army?’

  ‘For a while,’ Ben said.

  ‘I knew this must be so. For how many years did you serve?’

  ‘A few.’

  ‘What was your unit? What was your rank?’

  ‘Catering corps,’ Ben said. ‘I was a pot scrubber. Sometimes they let me make the tea for the troops.’

  Khosa eyed him warily, and wagged a finger at him. ‘No, no. I think you are lying. Come, tell me the truth.’

  Ben eyed him back. ‘All right, then. I will tell you the truth. I served with a regiment called 22 Special Air Service. You might have heard of it. Final rank of major.’

  ‘Ah. Much better. This is very acceptable. And you have fought many battles, yes?’

  ‘More than you can count,’ Ben said. ‘Against much better men than you.’

  ‘And killed many enemies?’

  ‘These days I only kill the ones who deserve it the most,’ Ben said.

  Khosa chuckled and clapped Ben on the shoulder. ‘I will have to watch out, hmm? Now, tell me about Dekker. He is a warrior like you, yes?’

  ‘The best,’ Ben said. ‘Worth a hundred of your soldiers at least.’

  ‘A hundred. That is many. And this young black man you have in your group. He is African?’

  ‘His name’s Tuesday and he’s from Jamaica. He also fought with the British army. He was the best sniper they’ve ever had. He can kill a man from two miles away with a rifle.’

  Khosa raised his eyebrows. ‘Two miles! This is a man of extraordinary skill.’

  Ben had no idea whether his wild claim was anywhere near the truth. He only knew that the more he played up the martial prowess of his companions, the less likely this lunatic might be to have them summarily chopped up into mincemeat.

  ‘And what about the goat man?’ Khosa asked. ‘Is he really a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, or were you only trying to protect him?’

  ‘He was a staff sergeant,’ Ben said. ‘In Africa, he’d have been made a colonel.’

  ‘And the big one? You can vouch for him also, or should I have my men kill him? I did not like the way he looked at me.’

  ‘They call him Hercules,’ Ben said. ‘And he’s as strong as his name implies. He could tear this building down with his bare hands. A man like that is worth keeping alive, well fed and well cared for.’

  ‘Hercules,’ Khosa repeated thoughtfully. ‘From Greek mythology. Interesting. Very interesting.’ He looked at Ben. ‘It surprises you that I am so educated, yes?’

  Ben chose not to reply to the question.

  Khosa’s eyes twinkled. ‘Ah, soldier. I am happy. It is good that we can talk like this, you and me.’ He waved a hand towards the doorway. ‘We are not ordinary men like the others out there. They are loyal to me, but they have no understanding. They are just mindless vassals who do what I command them.’

  ‘Like hack a defenceless man to death,’ Ben said.

  Khosa shrugged, as if to brush off such trivial accusations. ‘You are speaking about the cripple? I have done him a favour by ending his misery in this way. But I do not think he is your main concern, is he, soldier? You are thinking about the boy. There is a special reason for this. He is your son.’

  Chapter 43

  ‘He is your son,’ Khosa repeated slowly, as if enjoying the sound of the words. ‘Tell me it is not so.’

  Ben felt the muscles in his face tighten as if steel hooks, cables and pulleys were reeling them in.

  Khosa smiled. ‘I know I am right. He has your eyes, soldier. But I see deeper than this. It is what we can see behind the eyes that counts, for that is where we find the essence of a man. He is young, but he has much spirit. Like his father. Come, no more lies. Do not deny it. I can already tell the answer from your expression.’

  Ben said nothing.

  ‘It is as I thought,’ Khosa said, pleased with himself. ‘I told you, nothing can escape me. He is a fine young man. Of course you wish for him to stay alive. There is nothing you would not do to save him.’

  ‘You want to talk,’ Ben said, ‘then let’s talk. You have the diamond. I don’t know where it came from, or who that guy Pender took it from, or what kind of crimes he committed to obtain it from them. Whatever the case, none of it was legitimate. Which makes that diamond stolen goods, and means you’ll be lucky if you get one percent of its value from whatever fence you try to sell it to. But even one percent of what that thing is worth is enough to make you a very rich man. What can you possibly stand to gain from me that you don’t already have or that you can’t buy? Why are you doing this?’

  Khosa didn’t answer immediately. He turned away from Ben and began pacing around the room, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed in deep thought, like a philosopher in search of inspiration while contemplating some abstruse concept of metaphysics. But the greatest inspiration for Khosa at that moment happened to be nestling in his jacket pocket. He paused mid-stride to take out the leather pouch. He drew open the string fastener and rolled the diamond out onto his palm. The light was slowly fading outside, and the interior of the windowless building was growing darker. But the diamond seemed to shine like a lantern on Khosa’s hand.

  ‘You ask why I am doing this,’ he said, turning back towards Ben. ‘The answer is clear. Because when fate smiles on Jean-Pierre Khosa, he takes everything she has to offer. You say I am wealthy, and you are right. Before I had this, I was already a rich man. Now that it is mine, I will be the richest. It is true, I cannot sell it on the open market. But that is not your concern, soldier. I am a businessman with many connections. I will be meeting an associate and arranging the sale at a very good price, once we have returned home to my kingdom.’

  Ben looked at him. ‘Your kingdom.’

  Khosa swept his arm towards the south and west. ‘You heard me correctly, soldier. My kingdom. It lies a long way away from this worthless desert. There is nothing here but rocks and sand, scorpions and goats.
My kingdom is filled with beauty and rivers and forests and mountains. Its soil is fertile, its mines are the richest in the world and its territory is bigger than England, France and Germany all put together. It is a paradise. One that you will see soon, I can assure you. We will cross the Somali border westwards into Kenya. Then across Kenya into Uganda. Then across Uganda into Rwanda. My kingdom lies to the west of there. The beating heart of Africa.’

  Ben scanned the map of the continent in his mind. Twenty percent of the planet’s total land area, some thirty million square kilometres, home to nearly a billion people and some of the last great wildernesses on earth, divided into countries of a size that many of them made major European states look like tiny principalities. He pictured the journey that Khosa was describing, like a thin red line tracking roughly south-westwards across the map from Somalia across four borders. Skirting the southern edge of Ethiopia before passing through the Great Lakes regions, leaving behind the arid, dusty yellow-scorched plains for the equatorial humidity of dense grasslands and jungle. It was an enormous distance to travel, half the width of Africa, the equivalent of crossing almost the whole of Europe. Closer to two thousand miles than one. Like driving from Le Val to Budapest.

  And the journey’s end was a place that Ben had been to before. Back when he had made his first unofficial military excursions into Africa the country had gone by its former name Zaire, until the civil war and mass genocide that had spilled over from neighbouring Rwanda finally tore that nation apart in 1997. It was one of the most notoriously unstable, corrupt and violently blood-soaked regions of Africa, with vast tracts that were still generally seen as no-go areas and carefully avoided by anyone not motivated by a deathwish.

  The DRC. Democratic Republic of Congo. It was when a country took special pains to include the word ‘democratic’ in its name that you knew it was anything but.

  A paradise, for sure.

  ‘The Congo,’ Ben said. ‘That’s where you’re taking us? That’s what you call your kingdom?’

 
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