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Star of africa, p.30
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       Star of Africa, p.30

           Scott Mariani
 

  He was lost in his brooding thoughts when he felt a presence at his side. Jude’s face was shiny with perspiration and his hair was powdered with dust. Ben was glad of his company, but said nothing. They walked side by side without speaking for another mile or so. Then Jude got too hot and peeled off his jacket, slinging it over his shoulder.

  ‘I was meaning to ask you about that bracelet,’ Ben said, pointing at the little string of name beads around Jude’s right wrist.

  ‘Oh, that,’ Jude said, barely glancing at it.

  ‘Helen. You never mentioned her.’

  ‘No point,’ Jude said. ‘If you’d asked me six months ago, that was a different story. All in the past now.’

  ‘Forget I asked.’

  ‘These things happen.’

  ‘Yes,’ Ben said. ‘They certainly do.’

  Jude said nothing, feeling uncomfortable because of the way the thread of conversation was inevitably heading towards the subject of Ben and Brooke. He fell silent for a while as they trudged on.

  Then Jude suddenly said, ‘I think about them all the time. The others, I mean. Mitch, and Diesel, and Park, and Lang and Allen and all the rest of them. And now Condor, too. So few of us left.’ He forced a smile. ‘Like an endangered species.’

  ‘Then it’s a species we’re going to preserve,’ Ben told him. ‘With everything we’ve got. Because it’s all we have.’

  ‘I suppose that’s how it must be, in the military. Remembering all the ones who didn’t make it.’

  Ben paused before replying. A lot of faces, names and memories were flashing up in his mind. He said, ‘No, you never forget them. But at the same time, that’s what keeps you moving forwards. To honour what they gave up.’

  ‘And so you don’t end up like them.’

  ‘That, too,’ Ben admitted.

  ‘I’m frightened.’ The tightness in Jude’s voice wasn’t just from the choking dust that the column of men were kicking up from the road.

  ‘Everyone gets frightened,’ Ben said.

  ‘You too?’

  ‘More than you know.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Jude said. ‘I wanted to tell you on the ship, but we were never alone long enough to talk.’

  ‘Sorry for what?’

  ‘A lot of things,’ Jude said. ‘Such as, it’s my fault you got into this whole mess. I should never have dragged you into it. I just didn’t know what else to do.’

  ‘You did the right thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way,’ Ben replied. ‘Now I’m here, we’re going to get out of it. You, me, all of us.’

  ‘And I’m sorry that I hid things from you. I should have told you what I was doing.’

  ‘At Le Val?’

  Jude nodded.

  ‘If it’s what you truly want to do with your life, Jude. It’s yours to live however you choose. I just have to accept that. Who the hell am I to stand in your way?’

  ‘I’m not sure what I want. Not any more. I think that’s why I told people my father was dead.’

  Ben looked at him, not understanding. ‘Simeon was your dad in a lot more ways than I ever was, or could have been. Not everyone gets to have a father they can be proud of, but he was a very special person. If you want to hold onto that, I would never blame you for it.’

  Jude shook his head. ‘That’s not what I meant. What I’m trying to say is, it’s like I needed him to be my real father, so that my father could be dead, so that I could go on pretending to myself. You know what I mean?’

  ‘I can’t say that I do.’

  ‘So that I wouldn’t have to fight against what’s inside here,’ Jude said, touching a hand to his chest. ‘It’s like something in me trying to get out all the time. Like a wild animal that wants to break free of its cage, but part of me is afraid to let it.’

  Ben felt a twinge of sadness, but most of all guilt. Because he understood exactly what Jude was feeling. And because the wild animal Jude was talking about had been put there by him, by the Hope genes that were all Ben had ever been able to pass on to his son.

  ‘Sometimes I think I want to,’ Jude went on. ‘That’s where this screwy idea of joining the navy came from, out of the blue. Other times I just don’t know what I want. Sometimes I just don’t know who I am, even.’ He glanced at Ben. ‘I’m not like you that way. You knew who you were, right from the start. You set out on that path, and you never looked back or had doubts.’

  ‘Is that how you see me? Then you don’t know me as well as you think, Jude. I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out what I wanted. I still haven’t got the answers I was looking for.’

  Jude mulled that over for a while. ‘Then that’s something else to be sorry for,’ he said at last. ‘That we never communicated much. About the important things. We had to find ourselves in this situation before we could talk. I mean, really talk.’

  ‘There’ll be time,’ Ben said. ‘All the time in the world.’

  Jude looked back at the soldiers and the guns.

  ‘You think?’

  ‘How could I think otherwise?’

  It was another eight or nine miles before Khosa slowed his pace and then held up a hand to halt the column. By now the thick of the forest was far behind them and the road was twisting between banks of tall, yellow grass and thorny scrub with just the occasional flat-topped acacia tree standing alone. They had seen no sign of a living creature along the way. The afternoon sky had grown overcast, with heavy clouds rolling in from the higher ground to the south of them. Rain might threaten for hours, and then come all at once. When it finally did come lashing down, it would pound the parched earth into mud and cleanse the dust from their bodies and hair in a welcome cooling deluge.

  But Khosa hadn’t halted them to shelter from the incoming weather. Just visible over the crest of a high grassy ridge some eighty or so yards ahead was the top of a rickety wooden fence marking the perimeter of the first habitation the marching column had seen all day. Beyond the fence, Ben could see the domed thatch roofs of some dwellings. He could hear the bleating of goats.

  ‘He wants you,’ Jude said, nudging Ben’s elbow and nodding in Khosa’s direction. The General was waving and beckoning for Ben to come over. To give him an accolade, perhaps. Or maybe just to shoot him in the face. There was only one way to find out. No other choice.

  ‘Soldier, I have chosen you to enter this village ahead of the regiment,’ Khosa told Ben. ‘If they have transport, we will requisition it.’

  So the rag-tag rabble was a regiment now. ‘I thought I was a military advisor,’ Ben said.

  ‘Now you are a scout as well,’ Khosa told him.

  ‘Then give me a rifle,’ Ben said.

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because that’s what army scouts carry, as a rule,’ Ben said. ‘Some of these villages are armed and might be inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Especially when they see approaching units of soldiers who could be rebels come to give them a hard time. Or steal their vehicles, even.’

  Khosa eyed him carefully. ‘You wish to have a rifle, so that you can shoot me?’

  ‘With all these soldiers around?’ Ben said, gesturing at the guards. ‘You think I’m that stupid?’

  Khosa shook his head. ‘You will go without a rifle. I have been thinking, soldier. We spoke earlier of trust. If you wish to gain my favour, you must first prove yourself to me.’

  ‘I see. And this is how I prove myself, by walking unarmed into a potentially hostile village. I take it that if I come out in one piece, you’ll start trusting me?’

  ‘This is a small test,’ Khosa said, and swatted at a buzzing fly. ‘After you have passed this one, I will think of another that is more worthy of a warrior of your skill.’

  ‘I’m honoured.’

  ‘Now go. And remember, soldier. I have your boy here with me.’ With a sinister smile, Khosa drew the heft of the Colt Anaconda from its holster and aimed the heavy barrel towards Jude. ‘If you do not return, he dies first. If you try any tric
ks with me, he also dies first.’

  Ben stared at Khosa. In his mind he saw himself twist the weapon out of the African’s hand, using the leverage of that long barrel to snap his finger like a twig in the trigger guard. Then Khosa would be eating one of his own bullets before he or his men had the slightest inkling of what was happening.

  It would have been so easy.

  And then the last thing Ben would see before he died was Jude being shot to pieces in front of him by thirty assault rifles.

  Not happening.

  He obeyed.

  No other choice.

  Chapter 52

  The column stayed back as Ben walked on alone in the sultry, overcast heat. The dirt road split off into a narrower path that led through a divide in the grassy rise and past the rickety wooden fence into the village. He knelt to inspect the ground for signs of tyre tracks, but either there were none to find or they’d been washed away in the last deluge of rain.

  Back in the day, Ben had found himself in African villages not so very different, in Sudan and Sierra Leone. It looked like a well-tended settlement, extending over maybe a couple of acres on the edge of a thicket of trees and long grass and thorn bushes. To the other side, a further couple of acres were fenced off and cultivated, though he had no idea what kind of basic crop could be produced here. Last time he’d ventured into such a place had been many years ago, an in-and-out sortie as second-in-command of an SAS unit hunting a marauding guerrilla force called the Cross Bones Boys who had been kidnapping and butchering UN aid workers. People had died that day. He hadn’t had a lot of time to study rural African agriculture.

  Ben kept walking, and the track took him deeper into the village, past little areas of garden and some wire-and-post enclosures where chickens scratched at the dirt and goats bleated nervously at his approach. The homes were traditional mud-walled roundhouses with carefully crafted domed roofs woven from sticks and thatch, each supported at its centre by a stout wooden pole where a primitive dwelling in a less tropical climate would have had a stone or clay chimney.

  So far, nobody had taken a pot-shot at him from one of the huts. Everything seemed peaceful. Strangely peaceful, because apart from the few goats and chickens the place appeared deserted. As he walked on, he was beginning to wonder if a lookout had spotted the soldiers coming and the entire population of the village had fled. Which would most certainly have been the sensible thing to do.

  It wasn’t until he followed the track around a bend and reached the very centre of the village that Ben saw a living soul. Then he understood why the place had seemed so deserted.

  The heart of the settlement was a village square, except it was circular, about thirty yards in diameter, with the largest of the thatched dwellings at its northern edge, which Ben took to be the home of the chief or headman. Or headwoman, for that matter. It seemed as if the entire village, men, women and children, had gathered in the middle of the square in a big crowd of some fifty or sixty people, but not for any kind of happy or ceremonial occasion. Ben saw right away from the distressed looks on the villagers’ faces that some sort of commotion was going on, hidden from view at the centre of the crowd.

  He felt like an intruder as he approached. A strange white man in a dirty army jacket appearing out of nowhere couldn’t be good news. Faces turned and fingers pointed and one or two people shied away. Ben held up his hands to show he was unarmed, smiled and tried to look as unmenacing as he could.

  Rwanda had three official languages: French, English and Kinyarwanda. Of the two he knew, he reckoned that English was the most universally understood and his best bet.

  ‘What’s happening here? Can I help?’

  An unarmed and unthreatening white man in the middle of rural Africa could be many things, but was probably most likely to be a doctor or an aid worker. The crowd parted to let him through. Many looks were darted at him, a few suspicious, some anxious, most of them trusting. Ben heard the sound of a child crying and howling in pain. ‘Can I help?’ he repeated. ‘Je peux vous aider?’

  He soon saw what the commotion was. The crowd had gathered around an injured child, a small boy of maybe nine or ten. Women were weeping and men were frowning as they kneeled on the ground next to him, trying to stem the bleeding from his left arm and leg, which were badly lacerated and ripped open. The wounds were as fresh as they were ugly. They were nothing like the injuries made by a bullet or a knife. Ben had seen ones like these before, once, long ago, on a dead man. If these had been caused by the same thing, then this young boy was incredibly lucky to be alive.

  Claw marks. Made by something very large and very powerful.

  Ben bent over the child and asked, ‘What did this to him?’

  From a chorus of explanations, he was quickly able to piece the answer together. The boy had been attacked by a lion that had started appearing in the thicket of woods near the village. It had been hanging around for weeks, stalking among the huts at night. First it took just a couple of goats. Then it started focusing its attentions on people. It killed a woman who was washing clothes down by the river. Now it had attacked this boy while he was out gathering firewood. A tearful woman who seemed to be the child’s mother pointed at the thicket beyond the edge of the village and said the animal was still in there, hidden and lying in wait for its next victim.

  Ben knew that a rogue male, separated from its pride and taken to hunting alone, could do this. Especially if something was wrong with it – if it was old, or sick, or weakened in some way that had affected its ability to go after normal prey. Thin-skinned, weak, defenceless and slow-moving humans were an easy catch by comparison.

  Crouched next to the bleeding child and holding his hand with a tortured expression of concern was an African man of about thirty, whom Ben took to be the boy’s father. He wore khaki shorts and a tattered sleeveless sweatshirt from which his powerful shoulders protruded broadly, as lean and muscled as a human anatomy chart. From his left lobe hung a single earring fashioned out of beads and braided cord, with a pendant disc of copper wire that shone like gold even under the overcast sky. He looked up at Ben with pain in his eyes and asked, ‘Are you a doctor?’

  ‘British army medic,’ Ben said, which was partly true as all SAS soldiers received basic medic training. He asked to take a look and kneeled on the ground by the boy. ‘What’s his name?’

  ‘Gatete,’ the father said.

  Ben spoke gently. ‘Gatete, I need you to keep still while I take a look, okay?’ This was one brave kid. He held in his tears while Ben inspected the wounds. They were deep, but no major blood vessels had been severed. The main concern was infection, because a lion’s claws were covered in bacteria from the bits of rotting meat that collected behind them.

  ‘I can stitch these,’ Ben said. ‘But he’s going to need antibiotics.’

  Gatete’s father got to his feet. ‘You have medicine?’

  ‘I think so,’ Ben said. He was thinking of the first aid kit back there with the column. But it wasn’t that simple. He said, ‘My name’s Ben. What’s yours?’

  ‘I am Sizwe.’ The boy’s father pointed at another large, muscular African standing behind him. ‘This is my brother, Uwase.’

  ‘Sizwe, I need your help too. Does this village have any kind of motor vehicle?’

  Sizwe thought for a moment, then nodded and told Ben that Gahigi, the richest man in the village because he had the most goats, used a truck to take them to market in the nearest town. Also his friend Ntwali – pointing at another of the men in the crowd – had a four-wheel-drive. Why was Ben asking this?

  ‘Because I’m going to have to take them from you,’ Ben said. ‘I’m sorry to do it. But the man who brought me here is a dangerous man and I need to persuade him to move on from here as fast as possible, in everyone’s best interests. That’s why I need the trucks. You understand?’

  ‘Who is this man?’

  Ben said, ‘His name is Khosa.’

  The mention of the name caused a ripple ef
fect of fear among the villagers. Suddenly, everyone was looking at Ben with hostility.

  ‘I’m not one of his people,’ Ben reassured them. ‘I promise that, and I mean you no harm. You have to let me help you. Look—’ To make the trade more even and show his goodwill, he took off his watch and handed it to Sizwe. ‘It’s an Omega Seamaster. Swiss made. A new one would cost you over a thousand dollars. And it’s automatic, so it will keep going forever and never need a battery. Take it. It’s yours.’

  After a brief conference with the others, Sizwe nodded and said Ben could have the trucks if he could bring the medicine for his boy. The deal was struck.

  Now all Ben had to do was get Khosa to honour it.

  He left the village at a run and sprinted back down the dirt track to where the General was waiting impatiently.

  ‘Well, soldier?’

  ‘Trade,’ Ben said. ‘Two trucks, for some penicillin and a surgical needle and thread. I’ll need that first aid kit.’

  Khosa narrowed his eyes. ‘For what you need this?’

  Which forced Ben to have to explain the situation with the injured child. Khosa showed little interest, until he heard about the lion. His eyes lit up with fascination. He turned to his gathered soldiers and issued the command that Ben hadn’t wanted to hear.

  ‘Move on. We are going into this village.’

  ‘I did a deal with these people, General,’ Ben protested. ‘I just need a few minutes to treat the child. Then we take the trucks, and we go. Fair’s fair. There’s nothing else to gain from your going in there.’

  ‘You are not in authority here, soldier. And Jean-Pierre Khosa does not trade with cockroaches. We go.’

 
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