Star of africa, p.28
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       Star of Africa, p.28

           Scott Mariani
‘Then bring me a sack,’ Ben said.

  They brought a wooden crate. An old but sturdy oblong box nailed together out of pine slats and fitted with rope handles at either end, painted olive green and stencilled with faded white Cyrillic lettering. All the way from the Lugansk Cartridge Works in the Ukraine. If it could fulfil its original purpose of holding two thousand rounds of Soviet 7.62x39mm assault rifle ammunition, it could hold the weight of a hundred-and-sixty-pound corpse, albeit in pieces.

  Gerber couldn’t face it. Nor could Hercules. It was left to the other four to place the empty box in the middle of the floor and kneel in the drying blood and scoop up what remained of poor Condor. The guns were pointing at them the whole time. The gruesome work took ten long minutes, by which time the pine slats were slippery with blood and Ben, Jeff, Jude and Tuesday were stained up to the elbows with it. ‘You got water?’ Ben asked the nose picker.

  ‘You already drink.’

  ‘Not to drink. To wash with.’ Ben held up his bloody hands. ‘See?’

  The nose picker pulled a face and turned to grunt an order at another soldier. Khosa’s army must have had some notion of rank hierarchy, because the other soldier ran off and returned a moment later with a begrudging half-cup of water and a filthy rag for the four of them to clean up with. Once they’d done the best they could, Ben pointed at the box and said to the nose picker, ‘We can’t leave him here.’

  ‘Okay, okay, bring out, bring out,’ the nose picker said, waving impatiently towards the doorway.

  ‘This isn’t exactly the kind of funeral I’d have in mind for myself,’ Jeff said, trying to joke. Gallows humour was how he’d always coped with the worst situations, but for once it failed him and he couldn’t raise a smile as he went to grab one of the rope handles.

  ‘Let me do it,’ Jude said. ‘I knew him.’ Ben grabbed the other handle, and he and Jude carried the sloshing, dripping box outside into the falling evening. The sun was dropping fast. The temperature would quickly follow.

  Ben said to the nose picker, ‘Now tell your man to fetch us that shovel.’

  The nose picker frowned as if he’d been asked a long division question. ‘Why do you need it?’

  ‘To bury him, idiot.’

  ‘No shovel!’

  ‘Why, did you think I was going to use it to smack the side of your thick skull in?’

  ‘Now, where did he go getting an idea like that?’ Jeff growled from the doorway.

  ‘Quiet!’ The nose picker pointed across to a far corner of the compound near the perimeter fence. ‘Leave it there.’

  ‘We’re not just going to dump him,’ Jude said, outraged.

  ‘Rats also must eat,’ the nose picker said with a guffaw that was picked up by a few of the other soldiers.

  And so, veteran merchant mariner Steve Maisky, a.k.a. Condor, found his final resting place. Unburied, unmarked, left to rot in a crate behind a clump of weeds next to a chain-link fence in a forgotten no-man’s land many thousands of miles from any home he’d ever known.

  Ben turned his back on the rifles and muttered a quick prayer, and then all that could be done for the dead man had been done, and nothing remained but to walk away and prepare for whatever lay in store next.

  It wasn’t long coming.

  As Ben and Jude were being escorted back towards the bullet-cratered building that was to be their dormitory for the night, a pair of soldiers moved in on Jude and grabbed his arms, one on each side. They started hauling him away in the other direction, towards another of the buildings opposite.

  ‘Hey, hey, what do you think you’re doing?’ Ben said. He took an angry stride towards them and was instantly halted by three rifles in his face.

  ‘General’s orders,’ the nose picker said with a sneer. ‘He will not stay with you tonight. We will look after him.’ He laughed.

  ‘It’s okay,’ Jude said. ‘I’ll be fine.’

  Ben’s hands balled into fists. ‘No, it’s not okay.’ He glared so hard at the three men holding the rifles in his face that they backed off a step. But the rifles kept pointing right at him as the soldiers led Jude away.

  ‘Move, move!’

  Night fell. The building cooled. Its dark, empty shell felt like a grave. Just a milky shaft of moonlight shone in through the doorway, broken by the shadows of the two sentries standing on watch outside. Down to five, Ben and the others huddled in a circle on the cold, hard compacted earth. In a low voice, Ben related to the others what Khosa had said to him earlier.

  ‘The Congo,’ Tuesday muttered, shaking his head. ‘That’s bone.’

  ‘Bone?’ Gerber said.

  ‘Technical term,’ Tuesday explained. ‘British army expression meaning “totally fucked up”.’

  ‘I’m with you there, brother,’ Gerber said sullenly. ‘It’s bone, all right. Christ. I could use a drink around now.’

  ‘I could use a whole damn bottle,’ Hercules added. His big form was a slumped shadow in the darkness, exuding defeat.

  A long hush fell over them as each man sank into his own thoughts. It was Gerber’s voice that finally broke the silence.

  ‘Jesus, guys. What are we going to do?’

  ‘Two sentries on the door,’ Jeff said in a lowered voice. ‘Am I the only one thinking “easy meat”?’

  Ben shook his head. ‘One gunshot. That’s all it’ll take to raise the alarm. Then it’s over before it even started.’

  Jeff shot a furtive glance at the doorway. One of the guards had just lit a cigarette. They could see the glow of its tip burning in the night, like the red dot of a laser sight marking its target. ‘Who’s talking about shooting them? We can take them down in a second, quiet as a mouse. Won’t be like we haven’t done it before. Then we grab their guns and go and find Jude, and get the fuck out of this place.’

  ‘I’m not taking that chance,’ Ben said softly. ‘Not when there’s thirty more of those bastards out there in the darkness, and a gun to Jude’s head with someone’s finger on the trigger. That’s just the way it is.’

  ‘Then what are we gonna do?’ Gerber repeated.

  ‘Stay alive,’ Ben said. ‘All of us. This is about survival now. We play it cool, we don’t do anything stupid, and we wait.’

  ‘Wait for what?’ Gerber said in a strained whisper. ‘Wait for this lunatic to decide to let us go?’

  ‘For the right moment,’ Ben replied.

  Hercules gave a bitter chuckle. ‘Sure. They got us sewn up tighter than a fish’s ass, man. You just said it yourself. What right moment?’

  ‘It’ll come,’ Ben said. ‘We’ll know it when it does.’

  ‘And when it does,’ Hercules said. ‘What then?’

  Ben said nothing.

  It was a long, cold night. Ben moved to a corner of the building and curled up on the floor. More than he wished he had his cigarettes, and a tot of his favourite scotch to console him, he wished he had a blanket to wrap himself up in. What sounded like a pair of hunting jackals were roving somewhere outside the perimeter, deep in the darkness. He lay huddled up, trying to relax his tense, aching muscles, and listened to the haunting cries of the nocturnal predators. Doing what they were evolved to do, flitting through the night in search of their quarry. The same thing Ben was evolved to do. The night was his element, always had been.

  But now he was no longer the predator.

  He had never felt so powerless in all his life.

  Chapter 48

  Ben was woken by the sounds of activity outside. He opened his eyes and sat up, stiff and aching. The first light of dawn was creeping in through the doorway.

  Another day. Ben already knew it wasn’t going to be a good one.

  The night sentries were gone, replaced by a fresh guard of Khosa’s men standing inside the building and another three outside, all cradling rifles in their arms except for the fat soldier with the shotgun, who seemed to be in charge. The middle of his face was plastered with a dressing, and to Ben’s pleasure the bruising had spread outwards f
rom his busted nose and his eyes had swollen to the size of pears. He could barely open them wide enough to shoot vengeful looks at Hercules, who was still sleeping on the floor a few yards from Tuesday and Gerber. Jeff was already awake, sitting against a wall. He gave a dark smile. ‘Morning, chief. How was your night?’

  Ben gathered himself up to his feet and approached the doorway, watched every step by the guards. Outside in the red dawn, the soldiers who weren’t on sentry duty were busily refuelling the Dakota from the second tank on the truck trailer. The whole base was swarming with preparation for the onward journey.

  ‘How about getting us some coffee?’ Ben said to the fat soldier, but all he got in reply was a surly look. Then the nose picker came bustling into the building, shouting, ‘Awake! Awake! Up! Up!’ His English vocabulary might have been limited, but he could use it to good effect.

  Within moments, the five prisoners were hustled outside. Hercules yawned and stretched his big arms, then very deliberately passed within a step of the fat soldier, paused to give him a contemptuous stare and then suddenly tensed as if he was about to hit him again. The fat soldier flinched away like a beaten dog. Five rifles were instantly pointing at Hercules and the air was filled with nervy shouting and yelling.

  ‘Easy, brother,’ Gerber said softly, putting a hand on Hercules’s broad back. Hercules gave the fat soldier a nasty smile and then walked on through the doorway.

  The burning heat of the new day hadn’t started bearing down yet, but it soon would. Stepping into the dawn light, Ben saw that Jude was already outside, flanked by the two exhausted-looking guards who had evidently been sitting awake all night watching him like hawks, kept awake by their terror of what their commander would do to them if the prisoner escaped. By comparison to them, Jude looked as fresh as a daisy.

  Eat when you can, drink when you can, sleep when you can.

  Jude was learning.

  Moments later, Khosa himself emerged from the relative luxury of his own quarters, smoking another of his long cigars as his personal guard gathered round him. The General looked in high spirits, issuing commands here and there, rubbing his hands in expectation of an eventful and productive day ahead and surveying with satisfaction the bustling activities of his troops.

  Even the most basic forward operating base runs on a minimum of kit. The men were busy collecting it all together into a stockpile next to the plane. Weapons, crates of ammunition, jerrycans, the portable cooking stove, pots and pans and mess tins and oil lamps, the medical first aid kit from which the fat soldier’s dressing must have come, the folding table and chair from Khosa’s quarters, plastic water jugs, more crates containing food and sundry other supplies. Soldiers were swarming like ants up and down the ladder to and from the open hatch of the Dakota, loading all the gear on board.

  Ben walked across the compound towards Khosa, who saw him coming and turned. He smiled, smoke jetting from his nostrils.

  ‘Did you sleep well, soldier?’

  ‘Like a baby,’ Ben said. ‘I’ve been thinking, General. If we’re going to be soldiers in your army, then you have to equip us.’

  ‘I cannot allow you to be armed, soldier. I am not yet so sure I can trust you.’

  ‘I was thinking more along the lines of bootlaces,’ Ben said, pointing at his feet. ‘As well as uniforms. Jackets, at the very least. We need five of them. For me, for Jeff, for Jude, for Tuesday and for Gerber. Hercules already has one, and I don’t think you’d have anything in XXXL size anyway.’

  Khosa considered Ben’s request with a grave nod, and then gave a sharp command to one of his personal guard. The soldier scurried over to the stockpile by the Dakota, rummaged through a crate and came scurrying back a few moments later with a set of laces and an armful of green and brown clothing. The uniforms were a mix of plain khaki and disruptive-pattern camouflage combat jackets that might have been raided from any cheap and nasty army surplus store in the world. Khosa inspected them before passing them on to Ben. ‘This is good thinking, soldier. Now you are becoming one of us. I am pleased.’

  ‘Get them on,’ Ben said as he handed the clothing out to Jude and the others. ‘It’s going to be a long and chilly flight.’ The one he picked out for himself was a DPM pattern jacket. It was old and tatty and greasy to the touch, but it had all the right button-down pockets in all the right places. You never knew what you might have to conceal in there, when the opportunity came.

  Ten minutes later, Ben’s boots felt reassuringly tight again, the fuel pump had stopped pumping and it looked as if the old Dakota was ready for its long flight inland. Khosa issued his final orders to his air crews. Six men clambered into the Puma and the two Bell Iroquois, a pilot and co-pilot apiece. Khosa climbed the ladder to the aeroplane’s hatch and disappeared inside, followed by the Dakota pilot. Ben glimpsed the General through the co-pilot window of the cockpit, his eyes hidden behind mirrored shades and the cigar clenched in his teeth, talking animatedly to the pilot as the guy busied himself flipping switches and powering up the aeroplane.

  Things moved quickly from there. The three helicopter turbines started up with a triple out-of-phase whine that grew into a lazy whap-whap-whap and then into a howling chorus as the rotors slowly picked up speed. Then one after another, the Dakota’s engines gave a wheezing cough from their starters and a puff of smoke, and then the big three-bladed propellers began to crank into motion. The clattering drone of the plane mingled with the rising howl of the choppers, until the whole base was filled with noise and wind and dust and the rich smell of exhaust fumes and, to Ben, the familiar tension and anticipation of an airborne squadron preparing for action.

  The prisoners, now six again, now all clad in military jackets, were forced at gunpoint up the ladder and through the Dakota’s hatch. The aeroplane’s interior closely resembled that of the Puma that had brought them here, but on a much larger scale. Just like before, they found themselves being herded into a bare metal fuselage of bolted-together sections with exposed seams and fitted with facing rows of fold-down seats. Just like before, they were made to sit with the fat soldier, the nose picker and the skinny guy close by, guns at the ready, eyes never leaving them. Only this time, they were six and not seven. And this time, they were surrounded by a far greater enemy presence. Minus the half dozen men on board the choppers, minus Khosa and the pilot up front, that still left nearly thirty heavily armed soldiers to contend with. Ben and Jeff exchanged the same glances they had exchanged on board the Puma. But this time around, there was going to be no chance of taking over the aircraft in mid-air. No chance whatsoever.

  The rumble and vibration of the engines resonated through the whole aircraft as the Dakota began to roll. The engines revved up to takeoff speed and Ben felt the acceleration press him sideways in his seat. It was a bumpy ride, and the faster the Dakota lurched and hammered over the uneven ground the bumpier it got, until they were being jolted out of their seats and everyone was clinging on tight to whatever support they could find.

  Then, just as it seemed as though the lumbering dinosaur would never get off the ground, the crazy bumping ride suddenly smoothed off and Ben felt the stomach-sinking sensation as the Dakota gathered the wind beneath its wings and its wheels left the ground. And they were airborne.

  Chapter 49

  The droning, clattering flight went on and on. Even if it had been physically possible, there wouldn’t have been a lot of scope for conversation. An hour passed. With no window to see out of, and with the overwhelming noise of the Dakota’s engines and the whistling blast of cold wind rushing through the draughty, unpressurised interior, Ben could only wonder whether the choppers were managing to keep pace with them, or whether the Dakota had already left them far behind.

  For the same reason, Ben could only imagine the landscape passing by below, gradually changing as they progressed westwards for another interminable hour, and then another again. They must have covered at least six hundred miles by now. Almost certainly avoiding major centres of c
ivilisation, which wasn’t a hard thing to do in Africa. From the dust bowl of Somalia to the great plains of Kenya, overflying shanty towns and thatch-hut villages and rivers and the tail end of the great migrations of teeming herds of wildebeest and zebra as they drifted towards the Serengeti in Tanzania before the worst of the rainy season began. Then further westwards and southwards, over sweeping savannas and into thickening forest so dense that a man could wander lost for days, weeks, and barely ever see daylight squinting through the canopy of trees far overhead. Then further still, scraping the high western plateaus that soared over three thousand metres before they sloped down to the vastness of Lake Victoria, like an inland sea the size of Ireland, the source of the White Nile River, where giant herons and eagles glided over the water, and shore villagers fished the way they had been fishing for a thousand years, and hippos bobbed and basked in the water, and Nile crocodiles as huge and ancient as dragons lurked in the reeds and hunted through the depths. Then onwards, and onwards, heading inexorably towards the verdant heart of what the early colonial explorers had dubbed ‘the Dark Continent’. Much of it still as dark and dangerous, in some parts infinitely more dangerous, than in the time of Livingstone and Stanley.

  A whole different world.

  Khosa’s world.

  As Ben watched the hours tick by on the face of his watch, he was working out the logistics of the journey in his mind. Fully fuelled and not exceeding its cruise speed too recklessly, the DC-3 Dakota was good for a range of maybe fifteen hundred miles, perhaps longer if it had been fitted with the extra-large tanks that many of the old workhorses had. Those could extend their range by as much as another five hundred miles or more, enough to take them all the way to their final destination. If indeed the three choppers had followed them from Somalia, there was no way they could make even a third of the ultimate distance without taking on more fuel. They would have already had to land long before now. Which implied that Khosa would already have everything set up waiting for them in advance, planning for the choppers to make the journey in several well-orchestrated hops. The more Ben learned about the man, the more disconcertingly aware he became of how much smarter and more organised he was than Ben had first reckoned on. That wasn’t a reassuring thought to hold in your mind when where was nothing else to think about and nothing you could do to make a difference.

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