Star of africa, p.29
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       Star of Africa, p.29

           Scott Mariani
 

  Another hour dragged by, then another. Going by the Dakota’s typical cruise speed, that meant anything up to two hundred more miles travelled for each full rotation of the minute hand on Ben’s watch. They must have covered something like a thousand miles by now. Ben closed his eyes and revisited his mental map of Africa. If his idea of Khosa’s flight plan was anything close to accurate, that distance would have taken them over Lake Victoria. Beyond Kenya into Uganda, as Khosa had intended, taking a line approximately midway between the Ugandan capital of Kampala, to the north, and the Rwandan capital of Kigali, to the south. The journey must be nearly three-quarters over by now. Ben wasn’t looking forward to its end.

  He opened his eyes and gazed across the aisle between the rows of seats. Jude, sitting facing him, was fast asleep. Good for him. Gerber and Hercules, the same. Jeff was sitting staring into space, apparently lost in whatever thoughts were knitting his brows into deep corrugated ridges of anxiety. Tuesday’s eyes were closed, but judging by his posture he was awake, conserving his energy, staying calm.

  To the left and right of them, many of Khosa’s soldiers were managing to remain much more alert even after all these hours in the air, and Ben knew why. They all had dilated pupils and were as jumpy as a hardcore caffeine addict after four pints of Turkish coffee. They were chewing khat, an amphetamine-like stimulant derived from a flowering plant widely found across the Horn of Africa and even more widely used to stay mentally zoned in at times of great stress or boredom. Ben had tried it once in Sudan, didn’t get on with it, and resorted back to his time-honoured tobacco. Along with tremors and constipation, its side effects could include manic or even psychotic behaviour.

  Shut in a flying coffin with thirty potential psychopaths armed with loaded assault rifles. Things just kept getting better.

  But only a few short minutes after that, even those not chewing khat suddenly had a much better reason to become wide-eyed and alert.

  The steady monotonous drone resonating through the Dakota had abruptly changed in pitch. First there was a wheeze, followed by a strange kind of death rattle, both clearly audible over the roar of the wind. Then came a peculiar sensation as if someone had turned the balance knob on a sound system all the way to one side, directing all the signal through only one speaker. Like going suddenly deaf in one ear. At the same moment, the aircraft started juddering and shuddering as though it had hit air turbulence.

  Ben knew from experience that air turbulence was unlikely to be a problem below the high troposphere, between about 23,000 and about 39,000 feet up. Which in the former case was right on the Dakota’s maximum service ceiling, and in the latter case far exceeded it.

  And that, along with the strange and sudden change in sound pitch that had coincided precisely with the jerky motion that was making the aircraft lurch like a drunkard through the air, was enough to tell Ben they hadn’t hit turbulence at all.

  He wasn’t the only one thinking it. Tuesday had opened his eyes, and he and Jeff were staring right at him. They knew it, too.

  The old Dakota had just lost one of its engines.

  It wasn’t cause for total panic. Not yet. A Dakota could still fly on a single engine, like the one that had made the eleven hundred miles from Pearl Harbor to San Diego back in 1945 with one propeller out of action. Even on one wing, like the one that had collided mid-air with a Lockheed bomber and still made it safely home. The loss of an engine didn’t seem to worry the soldiers unduly. Maybe the old machine had played this trick on them before. Maybe this happened all the time.

  But when a second wheezing rattle was followed moments later by eerie silence except for the roaring, howling rush of wind streaming past the fuselage, it was clear that the situation had just changed dramatically for the worse.

  Because there wasn’t a Dakota yet built that could fly on no engines at all.

  Chapter 50

  It is said that the experience of war is defined by long periods of mind-numbing inactivity, interspersed at random intervals by brief, sharp periods of intense terror. Ben could pretty much testify to the wisdom of that old saying. It was about to be proven true yet again.

  When the second engine cut out, three things happened. First, total shocked silence as every one of Khosa’s men on board sat there frozen and speechless, rooted to their seats as the seconds ticked by and all ears strained for the sound of the engines cutting back in again. Then, mayhem and panic. Soldiers springing from their seats and yelling and screaming and waving their arms in terror, while others curled up and tucked their heads between their knees.

  Thirdly, the awful sensation of weightlessness as the aircraft began to fall from the sky.

  Amid the chaos, Jeff flashed Ben a crazy grin. Maybe they wouldn’t have to wait for the right moment after all.

  Ben launched himself out of his seat and grabbed hold of Jude, who was suddenly very awake and looking around him with wild eyes. ‘Hang on tight!’ Ben yelled in his ear. But there was very little to hang onto as the plane went into a gliding nose-dive. Nothing to do but count down the seconds until impact.

  Ben fought his way through the frenzied crush of Khosa’s men and ran down the centre aisle towards the cockpit. He saw the pilot desperately yanking on the controls as he struggled to bring the Dakota’s nose up. Through the twin panes of the split windscreen he saw a blanket of green rushing towards them. The plane was plummeting at a steep angle towards what looked like an unbroken canopy of treetops stretching as far as the eye could see, maybe four hundred feet below and closing fast.

  Three hundred feet and dropping.

  Two hundred feet and dropping.

  The pilot had both feet braced on the control panel and both hands on the stick as he hauled with all his might to get the flaps down and create as much lift under the wings as he could, while bringing down their airspeed by whatever margin he could for the inevitable crash landing. The plane’s electricals were still working fine. A light was glowing in the instrument panel to indicate that the undercarriage was lowered. Clusters of dials and gauges were going crazy. Sweat was pouring down the pilot’s face and his teeth were clenched.

  Jean-Pierre Khosa just sat calmly in the co-pilot’s chair and puffed on his cigar as if nothing were happening.

  One hundred feet and dropping. Ben could almost make out the individual leaves on the branches of the trees hurtling towards them. Then, down there below the green canopy, half-screened by the treetops, he glimpsed a tiny meandering ribbon of ochre brown. At first he thought it was a muddy river. A full second later, he realised it was a dirt road.

  The pilot had spotted it too. He was desperately trying to steer the stalled aircraft towards it.

  Seventy feet and dropping. But not dropping as fast now. The pilot was winning his battle to keep the Dakota’s nose up, though only by a few critical degrees. Airspeed was falling. The flaps were cranked down as far as the pilot could muscle the lever. The dirt road grew larger in the window, appearing like a narrow ravine flanked on both sides by tropical forest, just barely wide enough to squeeze the plane into without ripping off both wings and smashing the aircraft into a thousand fiery pieces.

  Fifty feet.

  Forty.

  Thirty.

  Jude. Ben turned away from the cockpit and rushed back along the aisle, fighting his way through a wall of bodies.

  He was halfway there when the impact knocked him off his feet and he went sprawling backwards.

  CRUNCH.

  The plane hit the dirt road with a violent slamming jolt that shook it from nose to tail, bounced and then came back to earth harder still in a wild bumping slithering skidding ride that seemed to go on forever. The tunnel of the fuselage twisted one way, then twisted the other. It felt as if the whole landing gear had been ripped off, wheels, struts and all. As if the whole aircraft was coming apart at the seams. A deafening cannonade of hurtling rocks and stones and dirt pelted its underside.

  Then, at last, the plane’s momentum was spent and its b
rakes brought it to a bumping, lurching halt. Then a stunned silence, before the wild cheers and the whooping broke out.

  Ben called Jude’s name and heard Jude’s voice reply, then Jeff’s. He shoved and elbowed his way through the melee to get to them. Tuesday had a bleeding cut above one eyebrow and Gerber and Hercules were badly shaken up. Jude and Jeff were both without a scratch. It seemed a miracle that none of them had been hurt.

  Neither, apparently, had any of Khosa’s people. That seemed less of a miracle to Ben. A broken arm here, a sprained wrist or cracked collarbone there, anything to compromise the enemy’s strength however minutely, would have made his work that little bit easier down the line.

  Khosa emerged from the cockpit, unruffled, still calmly smoking his cigar and clutching the GPS navigation device Ben had seen on his table back at the base in Somalia. Khosa quickly marshalled his men, issuing commands left and right. The hatch was opened and the ladder lowered to the ground for everyone to disembark. The six prisoners were made to lead the way, then shoved and prodded to one side and held at gunpoint while the rest of the soldiers came rattling down the ladder and crowded beside the Dakota. The air was heavy with the scents of the forest around them, mingled with the tang of hot oil and hot exhaust.

  Up close, what had looked from the air like a dirt road was nothing more than a rutted track. Even before the emergency landing had carved long, deep trenches in the loose soil, it would have taken a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a fairly committed driver to negotiate.

  Ben looked up at the sky, shielding his eyes from the searing midday sun. As he’d fully expected, there was no sign of the helicopters. No sign of anything, except the track winding away through the trees, one very grounded DC-3 and thirty or more soldiers milling around and checking their weapons for damage, lighting cigarettes, bantering and joking among themselves like tough guys and trying to act as if they hadn’t just moments ago been screaming in panic for their lives.

  ‘Where the hell are we, anyway?’ Jude asked.

  ‘Somewhere hot and damp, is all I can tell you,’ Tuesday said.

  ‘I think we’re in Rwanda,’ Ben said. ‘Which puts Khosa still an awful long way from home.’

  ‘One thing’s for sure,’ Jeff said, pointing at the Dakota. ‘If he’s going to get there any time soon, it won’t be in that.’

  But Khosa seemed to have different ideas. Once the last of his troops had clambered down to the ground, he ordered for the boarding ladder to be moved from the hatch and leaned up against the port wing. At his command, one of the soldiers climbed up the ladder and walked along the wing to peer into the circular mouth of the engine cowl, as if he could figure out what the problem was just by gawking at it.

  The engine yielding no immediate diagnostic clues, the soldier hurried back to clatter a few rungs down the ladder, until his head was just below the level of the wing and he was able to crane his neck and examine the huge aluminium fuel tank attached to its underside. He hung off the ladder with one hand, reached up and prodded around, then drew his machete from his belt and used the flat of the blade to give the nearest end of the tank a judicious tap. It produced a telling, hollow-sounding clang.

  Empty.

  Problem solved. Or diagnosed, at any rate.

  It looked as if the Dakota hadn’t been fitted with those longer-range fuel tanks after all, Ben thought.

  ‘Just as I reckoned,’ Jeff said. ‘Silly buggers kept on flying until they ran clean out of gas. Anyway, that’s the least of their worries now. Look at that wheel.’

  Ben had already noticed it, because it wasn’t easy to miss the fact that the whole aircraft was listing to one side on its undercarriage. The starboard wheel had hit a rock on landing, hard enough to explode the monster balloon tyre, which was now hanging in black shreds from a naked steel rim buckled badly out of true by the impact. But it wasn’t just the wheel. The whole hydraulic strut was bent out of shape, causing the out-of-balance tilt. Until the old Dakota received some serious attention in a well-equipped workshop, it wasn’t going anywhere again. Not even if they’d had five hundred yards of glass-smooth concrete runway to take off from.

  ‘Looks like it’s Shanks’s pony for us,’ Jeff said. ‘Whoever the fuck Shanks was.’

  Ben had to smile at that thought, knowing Jeff was right. They’d have no choice but to progress on foot. It wasn’t the idea of a long march in the hot sun that made him smile, but the knowledge that maybe Khosa wasn’t that organised, after all. And a long march on foot might just present the six of them with unexpected opportunities. Escape, for one.

  The soldier climbed sheepishly back down the ladder to where Khosa was waiting for him at its foot, arms crossed and no longer looking as placid. The guy was shaking his head and spreading his arms and shrugging his shoulders and offering all kinds of excuses as his commander stood glaring at him.

  ‘Who’s he anyway, the unit mechanic?’ muttered Jeff, who didn’t understand Swahili. ‘Not much cop, if he is.’

  ‘Sounds like he was in charge of refuelling the plane,’ Ben said.

  ‘Wasn’t exactly his fault, though, was it?’ Jeff said. ‘Pilot should’ve been watching his gauges. Assuming they work.’

  ‘Still, I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes,’ said Gerber.

  Hercules gave a snort. ‘Like we give a shit what happens to the guy.’

  But nothing could quite prepare them for what did happen to the guy, three seconds later.

  Khosa waited in silence for the man’s excuses to dry up. The soldier just stood there, cringing, shoulders slumped, head hanging in mortification. Then, still without a word, Khosa drew the .44 Magnum from his holster and in a rapid sweeping motion he raised it up at arm’s length and shot the man once, point-blank range, right in the middle of the face.

  Chapter 51

  Once was enough. The soldier jerked back like a shirt on a washing line caught by a sharp gust of wind. He hit the dirt on his back and slid two feet, spreadeagled on the ground with a shattered mess of teeth and exposed brains and sinus cavities where his face used to be. The crashing boom of the pistol shot rolled away across the countryside. A thin wisp of smoke curled out of the barrel of the revolver in Khosa’s hand.

  ‘Shit!’ Jeff burst out.

  ‘Oh, Jesus,’ Tuesday said. ‘He executed him.’

  Jude turned away. Gerber and Hercules just stared in horror.

  Ben said nothing. It was one enemy down. How or why it happened, fair or not, humane or cruel, was all the same to him. They all had it coming, each and every one of them.

  Still clutching the gun, Khosa pointed at another of his terrified men. ‘You! Come here!’

  The soldier stepped forward with his eyes shut, face contorted into the grimace of a man facing imminent sudden violent death. At least it will be quick, he must have been thinking. By the General’s standards, a supersonic large-calibre handgun slug to the head was a pretty sanitised and painless way to meet your maker.

  ‘Get on the radio,’ Khosa ordered him. ‘Raise my helicopter pilots and give them our position. Tell them we are two hundred and forty miles north-east of the Rwanda–Congo border. These are our coordinates.’ He tossed the soldier his handheld GPS device. The soldier hurried off to obey, grinning with relief at the stay of execution. But his grin didn’t remain in place long, when he came creeping a few moments later to report that the helicopter pilots must be out of radio range.

  Either the guy must have been a hell of a radio operator the rest of the time, or Khosa had simply lost interest in blowing people’s brains out for the moment, until the next time. Instead of putting a bullet in his head, Khosa turned to the rest of the men and commanded them to start unloading all essential items from the aircraft. The soldiers were instantly galvanised into the same frenetic bustle of activity they had shown first thing that morning, at the air base in Somalia. Except now it was in reverse, scurrying up and down the repositioned ladder to and from the open hatch with armfuls of everything that
would be needed for the long trek ahead, and stacking it on the ground. The stack was much smaller than the one that had been loaded into the Dakota at the start of the journey. Essentials only: water, light food rations, first aid kit and all the ammunition they could carry.

  And so the march began. The dirt road was running roughly east to west, and it was towards the west, towards his kingdom, that Khosa led them. He set off at a fast stride, swinging his arms like a man going for a Sunday stroll, without a backward glance at his abandoned aircraft or the body of the man he’d just murdered. Behind him walked his personal guard, fanned out across the width of the road, eyes alert and scanning the trees and bushes for any enemy that might spring out to threaten their leader.

  The remaining troops filed behind in a tail, two or three abreast, lugging the supplies. The group of prisoners were made to walk in between, strung out single file a short distance behind the spearhead of Khosa’s guards and a short distance ahead of the rest of the column, with thirty guns behind them as a constant reminder that anyone who made a break for it would be shot in the back before they’d made it halfway to the tree line.

  The Dakota was soon out of sight and forgotten as the track twisted through the forest. The first couple of miles were covered in silence, apart from the steady tramp of boots on loose dirt. October through November was the short rainy season in this part of the world, when sheeting downpours of spectacular intensity could alternate with roiling heat that quickly baked the moisture back out of the earth and reduced it to a fine red dust that found its way like sand into every crevice. After just a few hundred yards Ben was sweating under his jacket, and the dust was stinging his eyes and crunching between his teeth. But like all soldiers he was used to walking. This wasn’t the first long, hot, gruelling march he’d been on in his life, although it was the first military column he’d been a part of with neither a heavy bergen strapped to his back nor a weapon hanging from his neck. The sixty-pound kit bag, he was happy to be free of. The weapon was a different matter.

 
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