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Star of africa, p.27
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       Star of Africa, p.27

           Scott Mariani
 

  ‘Well, there it is,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Shit happens.’

  The rotten old harridan had just informed him that the wreckage picked by the navy destroyer USS Zumwalt off the Somali coast in the aftermath of the typhoon was now officially confirmed as belonging to the cargo of the MV Svalgaard Andromeda. Eighty miles east of where the Andromeda’s course should have taken it, the patrolling warship had winched aboard a floating forty-foot shipping container that was half-full of seawater, half-full of soggy electrical equipment bound for Mombasa.

  The computers had done the rest. Every container transported anywhere in the world was logged with its own unique BIC code. BIC stood for ‘Bureau International des Containers’, a horrible bit of Franglais that would have language purists tearing their hair out in outrage, but which was nonetheless the name of the head office located in Paris where all such information was processed. The BIC code of the recovered container had been checked against the Svalgaard Line’s own data records, and there was absolutely no doubt any longer that the Andromeda was one of several vessels (though none of them anywhere near as large or valuable) that had fallen victim to the monster storm that had wreaked havoc up and down five hundred miles of the Somali coast.

  As Sondra had gone on to notify him, the Svalgaard shipping line had already begun the long and painful proceedings to recoup their loss. Insurance company lines were buzzing. Salvage crews were already en route to locate the wreck. Less importantly, but even more of a chore for the Svalgaard executives, also underway was the process of contacting the relatives of the ship’s captain and crew to inform them of the tragic news that the vessel had been lost at sea, apparently with all hands. There would be the usual coolly corporate expressions of sympathy and commiseration. Our thoughts are with you at this terrible time, you’ll get over it, they knew the risks, life goes on. Not necessarily in those exact words, but that was the gist of it. Shit happens.

  None of which was allocated much room in Eugene’s turbulent thoughts at this moment. He was far too consumed with his own private interests. Over the last few days his mind had been working through a sequence of logical twists and turns that would have bamboozled even him, if he hadn’t been so obsessively driven to find his way through the maze. It all went something like this:

  If the Andromeda had indeed sunk to the bottom of the Indian Ocean with all hands, then the most obvious and immediate conclusion to draw was that Lee Pender had gone down with it. It wasn’t the idea of Pender being at the bottom of the ocean that had been giving Eugene heartburn. The guy was a Grade A shitsack and it was very unlikely that a living soul existed who would mourn his passing. What had been knotting Eugene up inside was the idea of the diamond being down there with him. Gone. Lost. Chances of recovery, virtually nil. Barring a miracle.

  It got worse.

  Because even if a professional marine salvage crew did manage to locate the sunken ship somewhere on the ocean bed at some indeterminate point in the future, and if one of their divers just happened to find the lost diamond down there among a million tons of wreckage, the possibility of preventing that lucky individual from a) reporting it to the authorities or b) more likely, simply pocketing it for himself, was even more outside Eugene’s control than the typhoon that had taken the ship down in the first place.

  The way Eugene saw it, in such a case it would be infinitely preferable for the marine salvage diver to just quietly take the damn thing for his own retirement fund. Because if the authorities did by chance learn that the world’s currently most valuable and therefore hottest piece of stolen property, linked to a notorious quadruple murder, had been discovered on board a Svalgaard ship, and if some clever dick managed to put that information together with the little-known but not entirely undiscoverable fact that the ship’s owner happened to be one of the world’s most avid diamond collectors, then it didn’t take much imagination to see how the trail could lead straight back to Eugene’s door and wind up with him being locked away for the rest of his life. He’d rather the diamond was never found at all.

  But those were only the most obvious conclusions. They weren’t the only conclusions. If they had been, Eugene would have been throwing himself out of the window around now. As it happened, he wasn’t.

  In fact, he was smiling.

  Because the glimmer of optimism that had first dawned on him back in Rome had steadily grown stronger since then. That single-minded ray of hope was what had been keeping him going, against all the odds, for one simple reason. Namely, the whole unthinkable worst-case scenario that would have had Eugene flinging himself to his death, or beating his own brains out against the wall, or spending the rest of his days in jail, all depended on Pender having gone down with the ship. But there was a flaw in that assumption. It failed to take into account one very crucial factor, which was the fact of Eugene’s prior suspicions back in Rome that his man might be playing a tricksy little game with him. The weird call on the sat phone. Pender hanging up on him like that. Something not quite right about the way the guy was acting.

  If Pender hadn’t been a dirty thieving crook, Eugene wouldn’t have given him the job in the first place. Then again, the possibility of his being additionally a dirty thieving double-crossing crook, one who might try and take the diamond for himself, had been a major source of concern. Though only a temporary one. Soon after that initial panic, it had dawned on Eugene that Pender’s double-crossing ways could actually be the best thing to come out of this situation.

  Eugene being something of a crook himself, it wasn’t hard for him to put himself in Pender’s place. If Eugene had been Pender, and if he’d wanted to run out on his employer and grab the rock for himself, then he’d have no intention of being still aboard the ship when it sailed into Mombasa port with his employer there on the dock waiting to meet him. No, he’d want to get off the ship before then, slink off somewhere at sea and disappear, laughing his pants off at how he’d suckered his boss. And for a guy who’d just been paid millions of dollars to pull off a heist and home invasion involving multiple murders, there had to be a thousand ways to get off a ship mid-ocean. You could hire a helicopter to whisk you into the blue. You could arrange a rendezvous with another vessel. You could even escape in the damn lifeboat if you couldn’t find another way.

  Which potentially changed everything. Because a sneaky conniving double-crossing sonofabitch who’d high-tailed it to a life of wealth and luxury was not at all the same thing as a sneaky conniving double-crossing sonofabitch lying rotting on the ocean bed with Eugene’s diamond in his pocket. If Pender had got off the ship before the storm hit, then there was every chance the bastard was still out there somewhere, alive and well.

  And if Pender was still out there somewhere, then Eugene could find him. Because Eugene could find anything and anybody. He’d found the diamond, after all. Nothing was impossible, when you had money. More specifically, Eugene himself wouldn’t find Pender; rather, he’d get someone else to do the legwork. Someone efficient, dependable and hard as galvanised nails who, for the right price, would scour the earth for as long as it took to sniff the little scumbag out. And who, when he found him, would pin him like an insect to a board and return the diamond to its rightful new owner, with no questions asked. Nobody was more suited to that job than Victor Bronski, and that was precisely why Eugene had called him from Rome to set him on the trail.

  And was precisely also the main reason Eugene was smiling, instead of jumping out of the window. Because Sondra Winkelman hadn’t been the first person with whom he had spoken on the phone that day.

  An hour before she called, Eugene’s cell had buzzed and a different voice had spoken to him. Slow, calm, quietly self-assured, infinitely patient. Like the man himself. Ex-NYPD. Ex-FBI. Ex a lot of things that Eugene didn’t know about and didn’t need to know about. The most diligent, most careful and most ruthlessly efficient private investigator money could buy. Lots of money, in fact, but price was no object here.

  ‘Are you
alone?’ Bronski had said.

  ‘We can talk. Where are you calling from?’

  ‘Nairobi. You in Mombasa yet?’

  ‘Since last night. Well, have you got anything for me?’

  ‘News.’

  ‘Good or bad?’

  ‘I found him.’

  ‘What! Where?’

  ‘Keep your hat on, boss. Pender’s dead.’

  ‘Down with the ship?’

  ‘Maybe. Maybe not. No way to tell. But he’s history, all right. As sure as you live and breathe.’

  ‘Bronski, what are you talking about? You just said you found him.’

  ‘I found his trail, which adds up to the same thing.’

  ‘Only if it leads to the right place.’

  ‘Like I said, keep your hat on. How I know your guy’s dead, is that he left tracks that a blind man could follow. A few weeks before your ship sailed he had a meeting with someone that nobody ever has a meeting with without ending up that way, sooner or later.’

  ‘That sounds like an assumption. I don’t pay you to make assumptions, Bronski. An assumption is just one small step up from a guess.’

  ‘You want to hear this or not?’

  ‘Of course I want to hear it. What meeting?’

  ‘Right there where you are, in Kenya. The Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, top-floor suite. Very nice. You might want to check the place out yourself some time. Best wine selection in Africa, or so I’m told.’

  ‘Cut to the damn chase, Bronski. You’re killing me here.’

  ‘This’ll kill you, all right. You ever hear of one Jean-Pierre Khosa?’

  ‘Should I have?’

  ‘Okay, well, you ever hear of Joshua Milton Blahyi, otherwise known as General Butt Naked?’

  ‘I think so. He’s some kind of African warlord, right? Ivory Coast? Ghana?’

  ‘Close enough. Liberia. He called himself Butt Naked because that was how he went into battle. Thought he had magic powers, all that kind of shit. People said he was a satanist and a cannibal. Killed about twenty thousand people during the first Liberian civil war. Or maybe it was the second. You lose count.’

  ‘Okay. So?’

  ‘So, this guy Khosa makes Joshua Milton Blahyi look like Mahatma fuckin’ Gandhi. My advice, don’t try to read his résumé on a full stomach. I’m guessing that your man Pender must’ve read it too, because that’s who he called the meeting with in Nairobi. This nutjob calls himself General Khosa. Born June third, 1972, in some little village near a place called Lingomo, south of the Congo River. Killed his first man at the age of eight and never looked back. He and his brother were said to have hooked up for a while with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, while they were still in their teens. Uganda, Zaire, Sudan. Lots of very, very nasty shit going on. Then a few years later they split from Kony. Apparently he was too humanitarian and touchy-feely for their tastes and ambitions, and they wanted to go their own way. You want the details?’

  ‘I just want to know what the hell this has to do with me and my diamond.’

  ‘No problem, boss. Khosa turned up at the Fairmont The Norfolk in a black limo full of badass African dudes in black suits. Very hardcore. Packing lots of heat, but hey, we’re talking Kenya, right? Two of them were guarding the door while Pender and Khosa talked inside for nearly three hours. Had the hotel staff in a hell of a twist, wondering what kind of big-shot player this white guy must be to call a meeting with these fellas. One of them got curious enough to listen in through the wall of the room next door. Air vent, or something.’

  ‘How do you know all this?’

  ‘What do you pay me for, boss? I told you, Pender left a trail like a goddamn slug. I know because I was there. Poked around, asked a few questions, spent a few bucks. I got the hotel employee on tape. He didn’t catch all of their conversation, but he caught enough, even if he didn’t understand what it was about. Stuff about a ship, one that Pender was going to be on, and how he wanted to be taken off it before it reached port. He kept on about some bullshit regarding a bunch of sensitive legal papers that some client didn’t want to fall into the wrong hands. An obvious crock of crapola. I’d be surprised if Khosa was dumb enough to swallow a word of it. Anyway, then we get to the interesting part. Right there, Pender offers Khosa one and a half million bucks to intercept the ship and get him off it, “legal papers” and all. Khosa must surely already be seeing through the bull if he’s got any sense, because when he bumps the price up another half a mill, Pender apparently doesn’t blink. Who pays two million dollars for a bunch of papers? And where’d a lowlife like Pender get that kind of money from?’

  ‘From me.’

  ‘My thoughts exactly. You were set up, boss. He used your own cash to sell you out, thinking he could score a whole lot more of it. Just like you thought. Which makes you almost as cynical and hard-boiled as I am.’

  ‘I love it.’

  ‘I thought you might. Because I’m pretty sure you’re also thinking what I’m thinking. Forget Pender, right? That’s more than an assumption. And it sure as hell ain’t a guess. The moron was dead the moment he set foot in Khosa’s garden. He just didn’t know it yet. Dollars to doughnuts, Khosa snapped up his two mill, then grabbed the diamond too, first chance he got. No prizes for guessing what happened to our friend after that. Which takes him out of the frame entirely, but keeps the diamond still very much in it. Just with a whole new set of characters involved.’

  ‘Find Khosa, find the diamond.’

  ‘Sounds simple enough. There’s just one small hair in the soup. Namely, Khosa’s not your regular kind of guy. You can’t just walk up to him and ask him for it back. I guess if you offered him enough, he might sell it. But I’m not sure I’d want to do business with this fucker.’

  ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,’ Eugene said. ‘You’ve done a magnificent job, Victor. I’m more than impressed.’

  ‘It’s what I do.’

  ‘Why the hell didn’t I hire you instead of Pender?’

  ‘You know why, boss. Because you’re a cheapskate at heart, and because I’m not some lousy burned-out mercenary asshole who kills kids.’

  ‘I told you, I didn’t know he was going to go that far.’

  ‘Sure, boss. Whatever. That’s between you and your own conscience. Nothing to do with me.’

  ‘Anyway, I’m hiring you now.’

  ‘Thought you already did that.’

  ‘I mean, I’m giving you a new job. I don’t need to tell you what it is. Just go do it.’

  ‘I’m an investigator. Go find someone else.’

  ‘You’re the only guy I can trust.’

  ‘That’s what you thought about Pender. Anyway, if I wanted to kill myself, I already got enough pills and whiskey to do it with twice over. I don’t need to get myself shot up in the freakin’ Congo or wherever. Not for this daily rate.’

  ‘Then increase it.’

  ‘Have to do better than that, boss. I’d have to multiply it too. Times the number of extra guys I’d have to take on.’

  ‘You know the right people?’

  ‘Do bears shit in the woods?’

  ‘Call me when you get some results. And Bronski?’

  ‘I’m listening.’

  ‘You find me that diamond, you hear?’

  Chapter 47

  As Ben stood watching and the dust settled around the now-stationary DC-3 Dakota, the main hatch on the left side of its green fuselage, halfway between the rear edge of the wing and its tailplane, swung open and a ladder was lowered out. Moments later, he watched as more of General Jean-Pierre Khosa’s soldiers spilled out of the hatch and came stampeding down the ladder to meet their commander.

  By the time the last man had climbed out, his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, Ben had counted thirteen of them. An unlucky number, especially as it now brought the strength of Khosa’s ground force up to over thirty, and brought Ben’s chances of making the slightest move against them to less tha
n zero. The odds just kept getting steeper. The disused airfield was now beginning to look like a real military base again, full of bodies and activity and a lot more guns. It wasn’t a welcome development.

  The nose picker and a few other soldiers emerged from the mess hut, grinning and waving at the new arrivals. The nose picker ducked back inside, then reappeared at the head of a larger group of his comrades herding the remaining five prisoners outside at gunpoint. Jude, Jeff, Tuesday, Hercules and Gerber all gaped at the plane, slackening their step only to be prodded on from behind with jabbing rifle barrels. Ben felt a similar jab in the back and a voice behind him said, ‘Move! Move!’ He let himself be marched across the compound to rejoin the others.

  ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Gerber said.

  ‘Our transport just arrived,’ Ben said. ‘At least now we know where we’re going.’

  ‘Where?’ Gerber said.

  ‘What did he want with you?’ Jude asked.

  ‘I’ll tell you inside,’ Ben replied. The soldiers were ushering them back towards the hut where Condor had been killed.

  ‘I ain’t goin’ in there,’ Hercules said. But he wasn’t going to argue with three rifles at his back. The six of them were walked across the dusty ground and through the doorway into the bullet-cratered building. The stink of death hit them as they stepped inside. It was bad enough to make them gag and cover their faces with their hands, but not as bad as it would be by tomorrow, when the morning sun began to blaze afresh and the flies arrived in their millions to feast.

  ‘You clean up,’ the nose picker ordered them.

  ‘No chance,’ Hercules told him resolutely. ‘We ain’t touchin’ it.’

  ‘I’ll do it,’ Ben said. ‘I get the feeling we’re going to be spending the night here.’

  ‘Not like we haven’t done it before,’ Jeff said.

  ‘Bring a shovel,’ Ben told the nose picker.

  ‘No shovel. Use hands.’

 
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