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Star of africa, p.26
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       Star of Africa, p.26

           Scott Mariani
‘Because it belongs to me,’ Khosa said grandly. ‘All of it. Or I should say, soldier,’ he added, clasping the diamond tightly in his fist, ‘it will belong to me. And you are going to help me to gain the power that is rightfully mine.’ Khosa paused, thought, shifted gears and then added with a sly smile, ‘You see, I knew you would come to me. I saw you in a vision. I have been waiting for you, Ben Hope.’

  Ben stared at him, but could see nothing but plain earnestness in his eyes. The man was being completely serious.

  Khosa’s disfigured face was lit up with triumphant joy as he went on, ‘And now you have been brought to me, as this diamond has been brought to me. All these things that have happened – that fool Pender and his lies. You and your men, appearing like a vision from the sea. My defeat, and your mercy towards me. The storm that sank your ship and made it possible for me to find you again. You do not see it, because you do not have my gift. But I, Jean-Pierre Khosa, I now understand that these things were meant to happen.’

  Ben went on staring, not saying anything.

  Khosa held the diamond out in front of him like a trophy, and shook it in his fist with a fierce grin. ‘And now, with this power that has been given to me, you and I together are going to reclaim what is mine. You and Dekker and Tuesday from Jamaica are going to train my army into such a force that it cannot be defeated by any enemy. Then nothing can stop me from achieving my destiny.’

  Chapter 44

  Ben said, ‘Were you born this crazy, Khosa, or did your mother drop you on your head as a child? Either way, there’s a straitjacket and a padded cell out there somewhere with your name stencilled on them.’

  Khosa glared at him. ‘You speak to me frankly. You have changarawe, like your son. But you should also be careful not to strain my tolerance too far. Do you understand?’

  ‘I understand,’ Ben said.

  ‘Good,’ Khosa said, his expression softening.

  ‘I understand that you’re a man of rare vision and exceptional ambition.’

  ‘Yes. That is what I am, soldier.’

  ‘I understand that you enjoy having innocent people put to death in front of you, and strutting about in that uniform pretending to be a general. And that in your twisted fantasies you’d love nothing more than to lead your country to freedom, so that when you’ve butchered and bribed your way into the presidential palace in Kinshasa and you’ve covered yourself in phony medals and gold braid, you can add a few more million notches to your belt by slaughtering your own citizens in the streets before you run off like a filthy coward into exile somewhere like every cheap little thug of a dictator before you. The ones that don’t end up in front of a UN war crimes court or dangling upside down from a tree with their balls stuffed in their mouths and their throats slashed open by their own henchmen, that is. And you want me to help you on your way to that? Forget it. Not in a thousand years. Next question.’

  ‘You are the one who is forgetting, Ben Hope. I have only to lift this finger, and your son will die.’

  ‘He dies, you die,’ Ben said. ‘That’s what’s called an impasse.’

  ‘I do not believe you can kill me so easily as you think.’

  ‘Then I die trying. Which puts the kibosh on your plans, whichever way it goes down. Whatever happens, it’s in your interest to keep him alive. I advise you to let us go, Khosa. If you don’t, you’re inviting more trouble on yourself than you can even begin to imagine. You’ve been warned. I won’t say it again.’

  Khosa was speechless for a moment. Then he slapped his thigh and started laughing harder than ever, roaring and booming uncontrollably until the tears were dripping from his chin.

  ‘Such defiance is incredible!’ he declared when he could talk again. ‘You stand here in my camp, with armed soldiers all around you, and the life or death of your own son in my power, and you warn me. You are truly the bravest man I have ever known. You are not afraid of death at all.’

  ‘Why be afraid of something I can’t change?’ Ben said. ‘If it happens, it happens. But to die killing you, that would be a pleasure.’

  Khosa was impressed. ‘This is the creed of the warrior. You should know, I have studied history for many years. Tales of great heroes, like King Leonidas of Sparta who stood with only three hundred men against the might of the whole Greek army at Thermopylae. The Bushido tradition of the Samurai. The great clans of Scotland. The dog soldiers of the American Cheyenne. Geronimo and Sitting Bull of the Sioux. The Code d’Honneur of the French Foreign Legion. And now there is Ben Hope.’

  ‘That’s quite a list,’ Ben said. ‘Should I be flattered?’

  ‘Do not be modest. If you are still alive now, it is because you have shown me that you have the same virtues that the true warrior has shown through history. The virtue of courage. The virtue of mercy. And the virtue of loyalty. This last virtue, you will now prove to me by becoming my military advisor. You will teach my men these same qualities and make them strong. The training will begin as soon as we reach our home base.’

  ‘All the way to the Congo, in a ratty truck and three antique helicopters that look like they’ll fall apart before they’ve covered half the distance,’ Ben said. ‘If that’s the best you can do to mobilise this army of yours, you’re even more deluded than I thought.’

  ‘Do not underestimate me, soldier. This would be a very grievous mistake.’

  Khosa carefully replaced the diamond into its leather pouch, and tucked it away safely into his pocket. He looked at the gold Rolex on his wrist. ‘I have spoken enough. Come. It is time.’

  Ben said, ‘Time for what?’

  The African smiled, but there was no humour in it. ‘Time for me to show you the next part of my plan, soldier. Then you will begin to understand who you are dealing with in Jean-Pierre Khosa.’

  Khosa stepped out of the building and into the fading sunlight. Ben followed, with no idea what Khosa was talking about. But whatever it was, Ben didn’t like it.

  The General’s personal guard had assembled outside the doorway and gave Ben hostile looks as they all walked out across the compound. Ben glanced over at the mess hut and could see no sign of Jude and the others. It worried him to lose sight of them, but he reasoned with himself that they were still in there, eating. Or Jeff and Tuesday eating, and the other three still being stubborn about it, with Jude being the most stubborn of all.

  He is young, but he has much spirit. Like his father.

  Ben looked away from the mess hut and watched Khosa. He was gazing up at the sky, into the west where the sun was dropping fast towards the horizon, like a giant orange slowly turning to vermillion red as purple and gold streaks of cloud drifted across its swollen disc.

  Khosa said, ‘Listen.’ He cupped a hand behind an ear and cocked his head. He looked around, turning wide eyes on his men, who were all rapt with attention. ‘Can you hear it?’

  Ben listened, but all he could hear was the chirping of a billion insects from all around, reaching a shrill crescendo in the last hour of daylight. The men all nodded, as if they could hear it too.

  Ben had extremely sharp hearing, which he’d depended on more than a few times to save his life. However much he strained his ears, he still couldn’t make out anything except the incessant surround-sound chirp-chirp-chirping. He was sure the men were just humouring their leader, out of fear of what he might do to any vassal who appeared to contradict him.

  If Khosa really could hear something, Ben thought, he must have the ears of a German shepherd. The aural senses of a bat. Or else, he only imagined he could hear something. Ben wondered about that. Could a crazy person have auditory hallucinations, as well as strange prophetic visions? Ben was no psychiatrist, but he’d crossed paths with a few nutcases in his time. If a disturbed individual could persuade themselves that they could hear voices from inside their heads telling them what to do, or whispers calling their name from the darkness, then Ben reckoned just about anything was possible.

  Thirty seconds went by. Khosa stood rooted as a
statue, listening and nodding to himself. A full minute. Ben began to wonder how long he was going to keep the show up. Maybe he was getting ready to proclaim, ‘Yes, God. I hear Thee. I will endeavour do Thy bidding, oh Lord.’ Then turn around with eyes glowing like an evangelist preacher’s and relate to his blinking, staring men what the Almighty had said to His chosen one. Maybe next would come the laying on of hands, or Khosa would suddenly produce snakes from his pockets, for the taking up of serpents in Mark, Chapter Sixteen.

  Or maybe Khosa didn’t talk to God. Maybe it was the other guy he had conversations with.

  But then, Ben was startled. To his amazement, now he could hear something, though it was so faint and faraway that it seemed impossible that human ears could have detected it more than a whole minute ago.

  The sound was coming out of the west, in the exact same direction towards which Khosa was gazing and nodding. A soft, ever so distant rumbling drone that seemed to emanate from some invisible point in the red-streaked sky. Ben listened hard. He closed his eyes to focus on the sound as it grew clearer and louder. With his eyes shut, he suddenly felt as if he was back on that raft drifting in the middle of the Indian Ocean, desperately straining his ears for the minutest whisper of a sign that rescue was coming.

  And then he knew what it was, and opened his eyes.

  Chapter 45

  ‘There,’ Khosa said, and swung up an arm to point towards the sunset.

  It was a moment before Ben spotted the distant speck in the sky, but by then there was already no doubt in his mind what he was going to see up there. The aircraft was still a few miles away, gently dropping altitude as it droned closer. The speck grew larger as they watched, then larger still. Coming right towards them. Even at this distance Ben could tell it was a sizeable plane, a big flying tank of a thing, broad in its wingspan and much larger than Kaprisky’s sleek private jet. An aircraft of that size coming in to land in the middle of nowhere, in a desert of rubble and scattered brush miles from any kind of airport, should have been an unreal, improbable sight.

  But Ben was realising what he’d missed before.

  Now he understood what the disused compound really was. It was much more than just an old abandoned military base for embattled government or rebel forces to hole up in during a civil war nobody talked about any more. It was the lack of any kind of smooth, level, metalled runway that had fooled him into never twigging until now that the place was an airfield. The broad avenue between the facing rows of buildings wasn’t any kind of drill or parade ground. It had been hammered out and levelled into a rough landing strip. Nothing like the one that he, Jeff and Tuesday had landed on at Obbia, which looked like Heathrow by comparison. Nothing you could remotely call an airport, not even in African terminology.

  And Ben hadn’t reckoned either on the kind of plane you could land on a rough, rutted strip of compacted earth in the middle of the arid, rock-strewn arsehole of nowhere.

  He hadn’t reckoned on a Dakota. Two mistakes in one. He was angry with himself for not thinking of it before.

  It was the sound that gave it away, even before he recognised it by sight. Nothing like the ear-ripping high-decibel screech and whistle of an incoming jet. The thrumming, clattering rumble of the approaching plane sounded like a thousand pneumatic drills all pounding away at once. It sounded exactly like what it was, the roar of twin nine-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engines driving a pair of massive three-bladed propellers towards them out of the falling dusk. It sounded like something out of World War Two.

  Because it was something out of World War Two, literally.

  The Douglas DC-3 Dakota, or ‘Old Methuselah’ as it was often called by the pilots who both loved and hated it, was like no other plane ever built. The first one had rolled off the production line at the Douglas factory in Santa Monica in 1935 and the last one just ten years later at the close of the war. But in that short production period it had become legendary as the most versatile and durable airliner ever made, and quickly found useful service all over the planet. It was the only airliner still flying that could take off and land on runways of dirt and grass, making it the hot ticket for developing countries everywhere. The landing distance it required was much shorter than modern airliners, and could take off in little more than half that. It was also one of the toughest warbirds ever made. It could go anywhere, in any weather. It could fly on one engine if needed. Ben had heard of one US Air Force Dakota during WWII that had been riddled with over three thousand shells from Japanese fighters and not only reached base safely but been put back in service just hours later, patched up with canvas and glue. Despite its supposed maximum passenger load of just thirty-five, a hundred Vietnamese orphans had been crammed on board one Dakota that had scraped out of Saigon under heavy fire during the city’s evacuation in 1975.

  Ben had only ever seen two of them in his life, one in the air over Sierra Leone many years ago, and another smashed into a mountainside high up in the Hindu Kush, not far from the Khyber Pass near the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, pillaged and looted for anything the local militias could strip out of it and reduced to little more than a skeleton. But he knew that hundreds of these living dinosaurs were still in daily use in Third World countries everywhere even after seventy-odd years of hard service, and that you could still pick up a battered but sturdy example for a couple of hundred thousand US dollars.

  Jean-Pierre Khosa had apparently done just that.

  Do not underestimate me, soldier. Ben was suddenly beginning to wonder if that was another mistake to add to his account. And he was wondering what other surprises the man had in store. It was a deeply uncomfortable thought.

  The Dakota came down low and slow, a huge lumbering monster with the falling sun casting red glints along its fuselage, scarred and battered and dull olive green like the three helicopters in the compound, but dwarfing them completely in size. Over sixty feet long and almost a hundred feet from wingtip to wingtip. Its undercarriage was lowered, those two wheels so huge that they couldn’t be fully retracted below its wings, attached to massive hydraulic struts that canted forwards like the legs of an eagle swooping down on its prey.

  The Dakota’s clattering roar filled Ben’s ears, and the hurricane from its propellers and slipstream filled the air with a storm of dust and loose particles of dirt whipped up from the sun-baked ground as it cleared the perimeter fence by a matter of feet and came down to earth in the broad open space between the buildings.

  The huge wheels hit the dirt with a jarring crash and an explosion of dust. The aircraft juddered and bounced, the wings slewed at a crazy diagonal angle, and for a second Ben thought the pilot had come in too hard and fast, and that the starboard wingtip was going to plough a massive furrow into the ground and flip the whole plane over and round in a circle and tumble it over end to end, wreaking a giant trail of exploding carnage right through the middle of the compound.

  But whoever was at the controls was a cool and experienced hand who must have done this a thousand times before. The Dakota dropped back from its erratic bounce into an even landing, its tail settling, its rear wheel touching down with hardly a bump. The aeroplane roared down the beaten-earth runway with its wings just a few yards clear of the buildings either side, making Ben and Khosa’s soldiers step back out of the great slap of wind and cover their eyes and noses against the choking dust. Khosa himself didn’t flinch as the giant wing passed right over his head. The Dakota roared on, past the parked helicopters and the fuel truck that Khosa’s men had, Ben now realised, tucked in close to the buildings to make way for its landing. The pilot backed off the throttle and the deafening roar of its engines rapidly subsided as the Dakota slowed.

  Khosa watched with a beaming smile and his hands on his hips while the plane rolled by for another fifty yards, reached the open ground beyond the buildings and then began to taxi back round on itself in a wide circle, steering by its pivoting rear wheel, barely visible for the clouds of dust swirling around it like smoke. The Dako
ta rolled to a halt, stones crunching and popping under its gigantic front tyres. The engines shut down with a splutter, first one and then the other. The three-bladed props with their yellow-painted tips and silver nose-cones clattered to a standstill. The drifting dust began to settle back down to earth.

  Khosa turned to face Ben, his demon’s face split by that beaming white smile of triumph. He pointed at the Dakota.

  ‘You want to know how we will return to my kingdom, soldier?’ Khosa said, laughing. ‘That is how.’

  Ben looked at him. ‘I warned you. I hope you listened to me.’

  ‘Say goodbye to the world you have known, soldier. You are mine now. We leave at first light.’

  Chapter 46

  Serena Beach


  From where Eugene Svalgaard was lying fully clothed on the king-size bed, cellphone in hand, he was able to raise his head and peer through the glass doors and out over the balcony and the low-rise cluster of mock-thirteenth-century something-or-other luxury hotel complex to take in the whole mawkish picture-postcard thing that scads of dumb schmucks from all over the world paid good money to come see. Waving coconut palms against the balmy sunset. The surf rolling in over the ribbon of white sand that was the last land eastwards between here and … wherever. The hotel manager had told him a lot of couples came here to be married. Ha. Good luck to ’em. The stupid suckers would still be paying for it after they were divorced.

  What Eugene was in fact raising his head off the bed to stare at through the glass windows and over the balcony was the infinite stretch of the Indian Ocean beyond. Somewhere out there was his diamond. The only possible reason why he’d have dragged his weary ass all the way to godforsaken fuckin’ Kenya, for Chrissakes.

  The long-distance call over, Eugene tossed the phone away and closed his eyes to digest the news that Sondra Winkelman in New York had just broken to him. Not good news, but hardly unexpected. It was the confirmation of what he’d already more or less accepted to be the case.

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