Star of africa, p.32
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       Star of Africa, p.32

           Scott Mariani
 

  Tactically, it was the behaviour of frightened, inexperienced men. The Africans were afraid. But they were even more afraid of what would happen to their women and children if they failed.

  The gunfire fell silent. Ben sensed the Africans spreading out. They would be listening hard for signs that one of their bullets had found its mark. A cry of pain, the crackle of twigs as a man fell dead or rolled in agony on the ground. The more they spread out, the less they would chance another blind volley, for fear of hitting one of their own group.

  Ben waited, perfectly still. To his left, unseen in the grass, he could feel the presence of Jeff Dekker and Tuesday Fletcher doing the same. He gripped the handle of his machete a little more tightly. It was a crude affair of probable Far Eastern manufacture, two roughly shaped slabs of cheap wood riveted together either side of the untempered tang of the blade. The blade was thick and heavy to compensate for the weakness of the steel. An unsophisticated instrument. More axe than sword, its single sharpened edge fashioned by some underpaid Chinese factory worker with an angle-grinder and its back edge a spine of rusty metal an eighth of an inch wide. Ben rotated the handle between his fingers and went on waiting.

  He did not have to wait long for what he anticipated would happen next.

  The Africans were growing more nervous by the second. Nervous of the hungry big cat they fully expected to come charging at them out of the thicket at any moment with the taste of human blood still slathered on its lips. Even more nervous of the unseen, unheard enemy that had shown no response to their opening gambit.

  And Ben knew very well from long experience that nervous men unaccustomed to being in life and death situations often found it hard to remain still in a moment of serious do-or-die crisis, with legs like jelly and pounding hearts flushing adrenalin through their bodies and every muscle taut and twitching with fight-or-flight reflex. The mad itch to go bolting and yelling either towards or away from anything that moved was virtually irrepressible. That was how Ben knew that the flitting shape of a man he’d just glimpsed stalking through the thicket, no more than a ripple in the long grass ten yards dead ahead of where he lay crouched and ready, was about to break cover at the first sign of movement.

  Ben pressed his left knee to the ground so that he could take some weight off his left hand. The hand clutching the stone. In a quick, small flick of the wrist he tossed the stone a few feet to his right, where it fluttered the bushes.

  And got exactly the response he expected.

  The African who came bursting out of the cover of the long grass was Uwase, Sizwe’s brother. With a wild roar of pent-up fear and aggression and a crackle of undergrowth he came bounding and leaping with his pistol thrust out in front of him in both fists, blasting a salvo of shots at the spot where the stone had landed. His rushing, panic-stricken charge took him within three feet of where Ben lay hidden.

  All Ben had to do was sweep his feet out from under him with the thick blunt edge of the machete, and let the African’s momentum do the rest.

  The blade caught Uwase’s ankle just below the shin, in the crook of his ankle. It wasn’t a hard enough blow to break bones, but Ben delivered it with more than enough force to send him sprawling on his face with a yell of pain and surprise. Uwase didn’t have time to react before Ben was on him, pinning him hard in the grass, an elbow in his face to stun him and the sharp edge of the machete against his throat.

  All too fast for Sizwe to even aim his pistol as he burst out of the bushes in pursuit of his brother.

  Ben said, ‘Stop.’ And Sizwe stopped.

  ‘Drop the gun,’ Ben said. And Sizwe dropped the gun.

  ‘Call the others, so I can see them,’ Ben said. But Sizwe didn’t have to. Gasimba, Mugabo, Ntwali and Rusanganwa all stepped out, pistols hesitantly half-raised as they looked to Sizwe for guidance.

  ‘Tell them to drop their guns too,’ Ben said. Sizwe gestured to his friends. The pistols fell into the dirt with dull thumps.

  To Ben’s left, Jeff and Tuesday were back on their feet, tense and silent. Uwase struggled and tried to throw Ben off him, but Ben had him tight. The crude blade hard against his throat. Ground to an edge by some Chinaman in a factory thousands of miles away. Not shaving sharp, by any means. But plenty sharp enough. That much had already been demonstrated too many times that day.

  ‘Do not hurt my brother,’ Sizwe said. There was no pleading in his voice, only stoic pride.

  ‘Kill or be killed,’ Ben said. ‘No mercy, no quarter. That’s what Khosa said. But it doesn’t have to be like that, Sizwe.’

  ‘You and me fight!’ Sizwe roared.

  ‘Like champions,’ Ben said. ‘Single combat. May the best man win. Is that your idea?’

  ‘This is the only way.’

  Ben stood up, hauling Uwase up with him. He shoved Uwase away, scooped up Uwase’s fallen pistol and tossed it to Jeff. Jeff transferred his machete from right hand to left and aimed the pistol in a swinging back-and-forth arc, covering all six men with a look on his face that said, ‘Don’t make me.’

  ‘You want to fight me?’ Ben said to Sizwe. ‘Then you’ll need a weapon. Take mine. I don’t want it.’ He flipped the machete, caught it by the tip of the blade and threw it. It twirled through the air with a hiss and speared point-first into a tree trunk four inches from Sizwe’s left ear and stuck there, juddering.

  Those four inches had been a deliberate aim-off, and Sizwe knew it very well. ‘You could have killed me,’ he said slowly.

  ‘Nearest I’m going to get,’ Ben replied. ‘Now it’s your turn. Give it your best shot.’

  ‘Don’t be fucking stupid, Ben,’ Jeff said from behind the gun.

  ‘Stay out of it,’ Ben said. ‘I owe him that much.’

  Sizwe looked at Ben, then looked at the machete buried in the trunk. He hesitated. Then grasped the handle and twisted and wrenched the blade free. He took a step towards Ben with the machete raised.

  ‘I’ll shoot him,’ Jeff said.

  ‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Ben warned him.

  Sizwe came on another step, then another. His face was contorted with confused rage. Ben didn’t move.

  Sizwe faltered. The blade sank as if it had suddenly become much too heavy for him to hold. He let it droop weakly to his side and then slip from his fingers and clang dully to the ground as he stood there, chest heaving, not from physical effort but from the emotional turmoil that was tearing him apart inside. ‘I cannot kill a man who does not fight back,’ he said, looking at Ben with the crazed, bloodshot eyes of a torture victim.

  ‘Then don’t do it,’ Ben said. ‘There has to be a better way than for innocent men to gut each other.’

  Uwase said, ‘What way is there for us? We cannot all win this fight.’

  ‘Better that than we all lose,’ Ben said. ‘You trust Khosa to keep his side of the deal?’

  Sizwe shook his head, mournfully. ‘No. Everyone has heard of this man. There are many stories of the things he does. He will never stop until there is no more blood to spill.’

  ‘Unless we can make him stop,’ Ben said. ‘Nobody else has to die. Only those who deserve it. If we work together, we can beat him.’

  ‘What are you thinking, mate?’ Jeff asked, lowering the pistol.

  ‘I’m keen to hear it myself,’ Tuesday said.

  Rusanganwa said, ‘Why should we trust you? You said we would make a deal. Now many are dead.’

  Ben felt the knife go deep with those words. ‘We won’t get a second chance at this. We do it once, and we do it right.’

  Sizwe said, ‘Tell us your plan.’

  Chapter 56

  Captain Terminator was becoming agitated. After the initial burst of gunfire that rocked the thicket had quickly dwindled into silence with nothing since, his expectations of a good, bloody human cockfight had shrivelled up into disappointment, boredom, and now into restless indecision as he paced up and down beyond the thicket’s edge, trying to peer here and there through the impenetrabl
e screen of leaves and thorns. He was wondering whether he should venture in there himself to make sure everything was okay, or whether it would be better to skirt around the edge of the thicket to find the others, for strength in numbers, in which case they’d be leaving most of the thicket’s perimeter unguarded and an easy escape route for the prisoners, which could be a mistake; or again whether he should run back to his general and fetch more men.

  The latter idea wouldn’t be a wise decision either. He had already been informed of the consequences of failure to perform his allotted task. While by contrast, courage and leadership initiative would surely be rewarded.

  So on balance, Captain Terminator felt that his best option was to venture in there alone, like the brave warrior he indisputably was, see for himself what was what and kick the necessary ass to get it all sorted out. The General would be proud of him; might even offer him a cigar. What a feather in his cap that would be, to stand shoulder to shoulder with his commander and light up a Havana in front of all his jealous comrades! Better still, the General might let him have first cut at that squirming little cockroach of a kid, later, when they finished the job they’d started.

  With a smile at the promise of these future rewards, Captain Terminator racked the bolt of his AK, drew his machete and went striding into the crackling undergrowth, hacking and chopping his way through.

  He was twenty yards into the thicket when a soft rustle among the bushes up ahead froze him mid-step and turned his blood suddenly cold.

  The lion. He’d forgotten all about the damn lion. It was in there. Stalking him. Getting ready to charge him. He could almost feel its hungry eyes on him, measuring him up from head to toe.

  He levelled his rifle and swallowed hard. Backed away a step, then another, then turned in panic and started rushing and crashing back the way he’d come.

  But he hadn’t taken three steps before a force as solid and hard as a brick wall hit him with a savage violence that exploded like white lightning inside his head and slammed him to the ground, driving the air from his lungs. He tried to scream, convinced as he was that the lion’s teeth were about to close in on him and rip his throat out.

  But it wasn’t the lion. The lion would have been better.

  Ben stood over the nose picker and kicked him once more in the left temple, not hard enough to kill him, just enough to render him all the way unconscious.

  ‘So much for Captain Percolator,’ Jeff said with a fierce grin. ‘Not so cocky now, are we?’

  ‘What are we going to do with the bastard?’ Tuesday asked, gathering around the prone soldier with the six Africans and looking down.

  ‘Sizwe, please give me your earring,’ Ben said, holding out his hand for it. Sizwe hesitated, then unhooked the ornamental pendant from his left earlobe and passed it over without question. Ben took it from him and laid it out flat on his palm to examine. The business end of the earring was an S-shaped wire fishhook with a blunt point, much like any of the earrings Ben had had cause to see up close in his time, during those few periods in his life when he’d been sufficiently domesticated to cohabit with someone more inclined to wear the things than he was.

  An equally quick examination of the left earlobe of the unconscious nose picker, a.k.a. Captain Terminator, unsurprisingly revealed no kind of pre-pierced hole through which to insert the wire hook. But Ben was good with that. Crouching in the dirt beside the prone body, Ben stretched the guy’s earlobe as far as it would go, like a flange of dark rubber, and stabbed the hook through the flesh. There was a little blood, but that wouldn’t be a problem, under the circumstances.

  Jeff was staring at him. ‘Ben, what the fuck?’

  It was a detail of the plan that had only just come to Ben. He was making it up as he went along. ‘Trust me,’ he said.

  ‘Okay, then what next?’

  ‘The Hi-Power,’ Ben said, and held out his hand.

  Hi-Power was the name given in the trade to the Browning nine-millimetre GP35 pistol, or Grande Puissance model of 1935, made by Fabrique Nationale in Herstal, Belgium, that had long been a staple weapon of armies worldwide. Jeff handed the nine over to Ben.

  ‘Now, everyone, please stand back a little,’ Ben said. ‘This could get a little messy.’

  And he pointed the pistol muzzle right up close to Captain Terminator’s face, averted his own to avoid the worst of the spatter, and pulled the trigger. Just as Khosa had done to his own soldier earlier that day, except with slightly less spectacular results. Only slightly. The remains of the man’s face wouldn’t have been instantly recognisable to his own mother.

  ‘Christ, Ben,’ Tuesday breathed when the ringing in their ears had subsided.

  ‘Whatever works,’ Ben said grimly.

  ‘This is the man who wanted to kill Gatete,’ Sizwe said through bared teeth. ‘You should have let me shoot him.’

  Ben applied the pistol’s safety catch and stuffed it into the baggy side pocket of his combat jacket. ‘I’m not leaving you out, Sizwe. If you’re up to it, that is.’

  ‘I do not understand.’

  ‘Six sets of tags and a head in a bag,’ Ben said. ‘That’s what the man asked for. That’s what we’ll give him. Do you want to do the honours, or shall I?’

  Sizwe was only too happy to perform the service, clutching his machete with a look of animal ferocity while Ben stepped away to give him room. Sizwe was a very strong man. It took only two strokes of the blade to sever Captain Terminator’s head from his shoulders.

  After what they’d all witnessed that day, the horror of the moment barely even seemed to register.

  Ben held the bag out, and Sizwe dropped the head into it.

  ‘Tags,’ Ben said. The six Africans unlooped the strings of military dog tags from around their necks and dropped them into the bag, now heavy and dripping in Ben’s hands. Ben knelt back down beside the headless body, set the bag down for a moment and unclipped the bunch of grenades from the dead man’s belt. Five of them would do fine for what he had in mind. He stuffed them in his jacket pockets with the pistol.

  ‘Now what?’ Tuesday said, staring aghast at the bag.

  ‘So far, so good,’ Ben said. ‘Now we move to the next phase.’

  As it turned out, none of the remaining sentries scattered around the edge of the thicket had shown the same initiative as their comrade Captain Terminator. Not that it did them any good.

  Ben and the others found each of the five in turn either lounging smoking or half-asleep against a tree trunk with his rifle between his knees, or standing in a daze with his back to the thicket and a mouthful of khat cud. The sounds of gunshots evidently hadn’t bothered them. All part of the game.

  But now they were sitting ducks. One after the other.

  Ben and Jeff killed two each. Sizwe killed the last. It was quick, it was quiet, and it was bloody. No mercy deserved and none given. They dragged the bodies into the heart of the thicket, laid them out in a row and collected their weapons into a pile.

  ‘We’ve been out here long enough,’ Ben said. ‘Khosa will be wondering what’s going on. It’s time for us three to return to the village, before he sends more soldiers out here.’

  This was the part of the plan that Sizwe and his friends still weren’t convinced about. ‘If you tell him you have won, he will kill our families.’

  ‘No more innocent blood,’ Ben said. ‘Not today.’ He dug the grenades out of his pocket and handed one each to the village men. ‘You remember what I said about how these things work? Pull the pin and throw, and keep your head down. And for the love of God, don’t fumble and drop them at your feet.’

  ‘We remember.’

  ‘What about those?’ Ben asked, pointing at the Kalashnikovs on the ground.

  Sizwe nodded. ‘Even a child can shoot a gun.’ It went beyond a figure of speech. Sizwe was more than old enough to have seen at least some of the mass genocide that had rocked Rwanda only a few years earlier, in the wanton bloodbath of the so-called civil war. He had p
robably seen plenty of child soldiers just as proficient with automatic weapons as adults.

  Ben pointed at his Omega, now on Sizwe’s wrist. ‘Give us four minutes. Count them exactly on the second hand. During that time, the six of you split up into pairs, with the rifles and the grenades. Work your way around the edges of the village. When the four minutes are up, Sizwe throws the first grenade. That’s the signal. When you others hear the explosion, you let loose as fast as you can, one after another.’

  ‘We will destroy our huts,’ Uwase protested. ‘The village will burn.’

  ‘A few outer huts you can rebuild,’ Ben said. ‘And it’s the rainy season. The thatch is still damp. It won’t burn easily. Now, once that last grenade has gone off, I want you to start firing your guns. Point them up in the air, and keep firing until they’re empty.’

  ‘I do not see what good is firing in the air,’ Rusanganwa said with a doubtful frown.

  ‘I’m not asking you to get into a fight with these people,’ Ben reminded him. ‘And we can’t afford for a stray bullet to go anywhere near the hut where your families are, or near any of our people. I just want you to make as much noise as you can. Make it sound as if the village is under attack by many fighters. Do you understand?’

  Sizwe nodded. ‘We can do all of this.’

  ‘Then, when your guns are empty, I want you to stay hidden. All hell will break loose in there. Most of Khosa’s troops will panic and run. Only a few will stay near their general. We’ll take care of those.’

  ‘And Khosa?’

  ‘You leave him to me,’ Ben said.

  ‘You are going to kill him?’

  Ben nodded. ‘Most definitely. And then I’ll get started on him.’

  Chapter 57

  In war, as in life, nothing is guaranteed. Few combat strategies, however carefully planned, ever survive first contact with the enemy. Military tacticians had been saying it for centuries, and Ben was acutely aware of it at this moment as he, Jeff and Tuesday made their way back towards the village.

 
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