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Star of africa, p.33
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       Star of Africa, p.33

           Scott Mariani
 

  His scheme wasn’t perfect, by any means. It was a desperate, last-resort, seat-of-the-pants kind of deal that he didn’t want to over-analyse for fear that all the potential holes in it might put him off. But it was all they had. Another chance like this might never come. There was only one thing he knew for sure: if he did nothing, if he didn’t grasp this one tiny fragile opportunity and give it all he had, sooner or later Jude and all the rest of them would be dead men.

  Ben, Jeff and Tuesday walked into the village square to find Khosa sitting on an upturned bucket as though it were a golden throne, still luxuriating in the cigar he’d promised himself, and surrounded by twenty of his men. Jude was kneeling on the ground at the General’s side, looking ashen and sick to the stomach. A few yards away, Gerber and Hercules had been made to kneel with guns to their heads. All around them lay the pitiful body parts and hacked corpses of the villagers, red slowly turning to russet brown.

  ‘You have returned victorious, soldier,’ Khosa said with a smile. ‘I knew it would be so. Though it took you longer than I thought. I was beginning to wonder what tricks you were playing, hmm?’

  Ben dropped the soggy, heavy sackcloth bag on the ground between Khosa’s feet. ‘There’s what you asked for. We passed your stinking test. Now let us go.’

  Khosa flicked ash from his Cohiba, then reached casually inside the bag. He rummaged around as though it were a lucky dip, then came up with a bloody fistful of the dog tags. Counted one, two, three, four, five, six. He nodded. Tossed them away.

  Next he reached back inside the bag and pulled the head out by a handful of its owner’s short, wiry, Afro-textured hair. He raised it up in front of him at arm’s length, like holding a lantern to light the way. Blood dripped from the ragged stump of the severed neck, not yet congealed and pattering into a small pool between his feet. He peered closely into the ruined features of the disembodied face, then rotated the head a few degrees clockwise to examine the earring hooked through the left earlobe, with its beads and coiled wire pendant. He nodded once more. Then, much to his soldiers’ amusement, he plucked the half-smoked cigar from his mouth and stuck it between what was left of the head’s open lips.

  ‘This cockroach Sizwe looks much better now,’ he proclaimed to the laughing soldiers, raising the head higher to display it to them. ‘Do you not think?’

  Khosa plucked out the cigar and replaced it in his own mouth, puffing clouds of smoke. He dropped the head back into the bag and kicked it away like a football. It rolled a few yards and came to a rest in the dirt.

  ‘You have indeed passed the test, soldier,’ Khosa said to Ben. ‘But I cannot let you go. That was not the agreement.’

  Ben was counting down the seconds in his mind. He’d told Sizwe to hang back for four minutes. That left one minute and forty-five seconds to go before Sizwe and his companions kicked off the diversion. Ben could feel the weight of the Browning Hi-Power in his pocket. He was mentally running through the motions, visualising every detail. Khosa would be the first to die. To shoot him now would be suicide for Ben himself, and certain death for the others. But to shoot him when all hell started breaking loose: at least then there was a good chance that all six of them would survive it.

  Khosa frowned, gazing left and right. He blinked as if he’d suddenly remembered something, and raised a hand. ‘Wait. Someone is missing. Where are the guards I sent with you?’

  ‘The lion got one of them,’ Ben said. ‘Isn’t that right, Jeff?’

  ‘Happened right in front of me,’ Jeff said. ‘Most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’

  Khosa blinked again. ‘The lion took one of my men?’

  Ben shrugged, as if such things were a daily occurrence for British army soldiers. ‘What did you think would happen, sending men in there with a man-eater? You want to send a team to find the remains, that’s up to you. Personally, I’d let it go. That’s not a happy cat in there.’

  ‘One man,’ Khosa said. ‘Where are the others?’

  One minute, twenty-eight seconds to go.

  Ben shook his head. ‘Sorry to be the one to tell you, General, but your men have deserted you. I heard them talking. It’s a coup. They’re probably still out there right at this moment, conspiring how to kill you.’

  It might have been a flimsy psychological thread to hang a whole strategy on, but it was every bit as effective as Ben could have wished. Khosa leapt to his feet, propelled into an all-consuming hurricane of outrage, a raptus of seething, foaming psychotic fury. He jumped up and down. He ripped the cigar from his lips and dashed it to sparking pieces in the dirt with the heel of his boot as though it had personally offended him. He tore his Colt Anaconda out of his holster, cocked its hammer and waved it like a man possessed at his terrified soldiers.

  He screamed so loudly that his voice was distorted. ‘YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, AND YOU FOUR. GO AND FIND ME THESE DESERTERS AND BRING THEM BACK TO ME ALIVE! GO! RUN! GO!’

  Eight of the soldiers jumped to it, clutching their rifles, probably glad to have been ordered off the scene of what could be an imminent massacre.

  Ben kept counting. Sixty seconds to go.

  ‘WHO ELSE WANTS TO BETRAY ME?’ Khosa bellowed, waving his revolver at the rest of the soldiers. ‘YOU?’

  Not me, General.

  ‘YOU?’

  Never, General. We swear.

  Forty seconds. Ben watched and listened to the raging fury that was the General storming up and down and pointing accusing fingers at his men. His enraged bellowing diminished in volume as his rage passed its apoplectic peak and began to hit the downslope. He was now merely screaming very, very loudly. ‘Am I not a fair and generous leader? Do you not enjoy many privileges thanks to my kindness?’

  Of course, General.

  Twenty seconds.

  ‘You! Do you want to lead this army in my place? What about you?’

  We follow only you, General.

  Amid all the noise, Ben counted down the last remaining seconds. So far, the plan seemed to be going all right. But Sizwe was taking his precious time. The four minutes were up.

  Then they were more than up.

  Nothing was happening, except that Khosa was beginning to calm down. Which was more frightening than the peak of his rage. There was no telling what he would do next. And there was a limit to how long Ben could keep this lunatic distracted with mind games.

  Come on, Sizwe, Ben thought. Where the hell are you?

  Nothing happened.

  Not until twenty seconds later, when Ben knew that his plan had started to go badly wrong. From one instant to the next, it was suddenly unravelling worse than he could have possibly anticipated.

  Half a dozen of the soldiers Khosa had sent out to hunt for the deserters were marching back into the heart of the village. They weren’t alone.

  Walking in front of them, heads bowed in defeat and arms raised in submission, were Uwase, Ntwali, Gasimba, Mugabo and Rusanganwa.

  Chapter 58

  ‘We caught these five cockroaches just as they were going to attack us, General,’ the lead soldier reported. ‘And we found these.’

  The captured rifles and grenades clattered to the ground.

  An electric shock prod stabbed at Ben’s heart. Outwardly he let nothing show, but it was the collapse of everything. All hope was gone. Sizwe was on his own now, alone and running scared, having seen his companions caught and marched away at gunpoint, and probably convinced that more soldiers would be combing the brush for him at any moment. There was no way he was going to launch a diversionary attack on the village single-handed.

  Run, Sizwe, Ben was thinking. Run like hell and don’t look back, no matter what.

  If the soldiers caught him too, Khosa would soon find out for sure that Ben had tricked him. Things were bad enough already.

  Uwase, Ntwali, Gasimba, Mugabo and Rusanganwa were thrown down on their knees and made to grovel in a line as Khosa strode up to them, gnashing his teeth in rekindled fury.

 
‘Where did you get these?’ he demanded in a roar, and pointed at the weapons and grenades. When he got no reply, he spun around to face Ben with bulging eyes.

  ‘What kind of deception is this, soldier? I ordered you to kill these men. Do you take me for an idiot? Is this how you repay my mercy?’

  Ben’s right hand was just inches from the pistol in his pocket. The urge to make a grab for it and start shooting was hard to suppress. If he put a bullet in Khosa’s head, right here, right now, before the soldiers cut him down, what would happen next? Without their general to give the order, would they fall into disarray like the rabble they were, or would they simply open fire on the prisoners and not stop shooting until every single one of them was dead? If Ben pulled the trigger, was he saving Jude or was he killing him?

  It was just too great a chance to take. Ben knew he couldn’t risk it. In the blink of an eye, the gun in his pocket had now gone from being his best chance to being his greatest liability. Khosa had only to order the men to search Ben, and the jig would be up.

  ‘Your orders were to bring back one head and six sets of tags,’ Ben said, gazing coolly into Khosa’s blazing eyes. He was having to use every last bit of his training and discipline to remain outwardly calm. ‘That’s what we did. I killed one and let the other five run. As your military advisor, I would respectfully suggest that a commanding officer’s orders should be as clear and specific as possible, to the letter. If you meant differently, you should have said so.’

  Khosa stared at him, clamping his jaws so hard that Ben half expected to see blood foaming out of his mouth.

  ‘Where did they get the grenades?’ Khosa demanded.

  ‘From the dead body of the soldier the lion killed,’ Ben said. ‘That’s my best guess. Maybe they chased it off.’

  Khosa stared at him for ten long, drawn-out seconds. Ben could almost feel the rage from those bulging eyes boring into his head like beams of energy, scouring his mind, ransacking his thoughts for any trace of a lie. To look away now, to show the slightest sign of doubt or weakness, would be fatal.

  Khosa said, ‘Hm.’

  Then turned back to point at the five kneeling Africans on the ground. ‘I want these cockroaches DEAD!’ he screamed at his soldiers. ‘But first, kill the women and children. Every last one of them! Bring them out here and chop off their arms, legs and heads! I want this village razed to the ground! Let it be removed from the earth as if it had never existed! Spill their blood! SPILL THEIR BLOOD!’

  The soldiers cheered and waved their guns in the air. They took up their general’s chant, over and over, like a chorus from hell.

  SPILL THEIR BLOOD!

  SPILL THEIR BLOOD!

  Jeff and Tuesday were standing rooted to the spot. Jude was staring wildly at Ben. Gerber and Hercules both had their eyes closed, as if trying to shut out the nightmare unfolding around them, just wanting it to be over.

  SPILL THEIR BLOOD!

  SPILL THEIR BLOOD!

  Ben felt the weight of the pistol like a brick inside his pocket. In that moment, he very nearly thought ‘Fuck it’ and went for the weapon.

  But before Ben was able to do anything that crazy, the explosive rattle of gunfire from beyond the outskirts of the village startled him back to his senses. The terrible chanting faltered and stopped. Khosa and his soldiers all turned towards the gunfire, momentarily distracted.

  Ben’s immediate thought was, Sizwe. He hadn’t made his escape after all. He was back. The man was mounting a heroic solitary assault to claim back his village. The diversion was happening, after all. It could change everything.

  And that could be all the chance Ben needed. He slipped his hand inside his pocket. His fingers closed around the butt of the Browning.

  Now or never, he thought. Do it.

  But he hadn’t got the weapon half out of his pocket before everything changed again. And got worse. Much, much worse.

  The gunfire had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Two more of Khosa’s soldiers were running back into the village, bursting with news to report to their commander.

  Ben thought, Shit, they’ve caught Sizwe.

  He was wrong. They hadn’t caught Sizwe. Sizwe was still out there somewhere. But they had caught something.

  The soldiers had caught the lion.

  Chapter 59

  The lion had been in the thicket all along. Watching, hiding, waiting. When the soldiers had gone in to search for the deserters as Khosa had ordered them, two men split from the main hunting party had accidentally flushed the animal from its hiding place. It had tried to attack one of them but been driven back by a volley of gunfire and gone crashing off through the thicket. In its blind panic, it had fallen into a ditch with steep banks from which it could not escape.

  The soldiers breathlessly reported to Khosa that it was still there, trapped.

  The General’s eyes widened in enthralment at the news. ‘I must see it!’ he exclaimed. ‘Show me the way!’ His fury had abated instantly, like a child’s tantrum appeased by some placatory gift. From one second to the next, he seemed to completely forget about the villagers he’d been just about to have chopped into pieces, and about the attempts at treachery and deception that had so enraged him just moments earlier. Gripped by fascination to see the lion, he ordered for some of his soldiers to stay behind and guard the five village men while everyone else accompanied him to the spot where the animal had become trapped.

  The two who had found it led the way, Khosa striding after them with a rapt smile on his face. Ben, Jeff, Tuesday, Jude, Gerber and Hercules were marched along at gunpoint in the General’s wake. Few of the soldiers seemed particularly excited to see the lion. There were looks of disappointment that their fun had been interrupted, if no actual grumbles of dissent. Nobody would have dared push it that far. In any case, the fun would resume soon enough. The villagers weren’t going anywhere.

  As the procession of men headed deeper into the thicket, Ben exchanged anxious glances with Jeff and Tuesday. But their worry that Khosa was about to be led right past the spot where the headless Captain Terminator and the bodies of the other soldiers lay stretched out in the long grass soon left them when the procession instead veered off in a dogleg to the right, into an area thick with thorn bushes where the ground was loose and crumbly and the terrain rose and fell steeply in a series of natural ridges and troughs. Ben first made sure that none of the guards was watching him, then slipped the pistol from his pocket to discreetly lose it in the bushes.

  A tough decision to make. It felt as if the last flimsy thread connecting him to the world had just been snipped.

  They heard the animal’s frantic roars before they got within sight of it. The soldiers bent back a tangle of thorny growth for their general to duck through, followed by the rest of the contingent, and then there it was. A big male, with a shaggy mane and a tawny coat streaked with dust and dirt. Just as the two soldiers had reported, it had got itself trapped between the steep earth banks of a deep trough that was closed off at both ends by thorn bushes so dense that not even a rhino could have ploughed through them.

  Peering through the crowd that assembled at the edge of the ditch, Ben watched the frightened animal trying to get free. To his eye it looked thin and emaciated, its ribs too visible through its fur. Every time it hurled itself in an attempt to scramble up the bank, it could only rake desperately for a purchase using its front paws and kept slithering back down to the bottom time after time in a small landslide of dirt and stones and ripped plant roots. Ben saw right away why the poor beast was unable to climb or leap its way out. The same reason it had turned to preying on people. It had a withered and dragging hind leg that was too weak to help give it the push it needed to escape. An old injury, maybe, or the result of disease. The kind of debility that no wild animal, prey or predator, could hope to survive in the long term. That accounted for the emaciation, too. The lion was a desperate animal that was slowly starving and living on borrowed time.

  Nature is
cruel. But even a lame, starving lion was still a lion. Five hundred pounds of muscle and teeth and claws and killer instinct. If this thing had made an appearance earlier, things might have gone quite differently for Ben and the others.

  Khosa stood on the edge of the ditch and shook his head in awed admiration. ‘I would like to have this magnificent creature as a pet,’ he announced to his men. Motioning at two of them, he added, ‘You and you. Go in there and bring it to me.’

  The men hesitated, not quite certain at that moment which frightened them more, Khosa or the lion.

  ‘Wait,’ Khosa said, holding up a finger. He thought for a moment; then a smile spread over his face. ‘No. I have had a better idea.’

  He turned to Ben.

  ‘I have thought of another test, soldier.’

  ‘I thought we had passed the test.’

  ‘This test is not for you,’ Khosa replied, and pointed back through the crowd of soldiers at Hercules. ‘It is for him.’

  Ben said nothing. His stomach had turned into a ball of molten lead.

  Holding up his hands and smiling widely, Khosa seemed to address the sky and proclaimed the words ‘Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.’

  Down below where they stood, the lion charged at the bank and crashed its claws into the earth and fell back, roaring in rage and frustration.

  ‘Homer, The Odyssey,’ Khosa said to Ben. ‘I told you, soldier, I am a very learned man. I have read all of Greek mythology. One of my favourites is the legend of the warrior Hercules. Do you know it?’

  Ben knew it. That was why he said nothing. Because he was beginning to realise where this was going and it made him feel even sicker than before.

  ‘If you do not know it, I will tell you. According to the legend, the great warrior Hercules was commanded by his king to carry out twelve labours, tasks so difficult and dangerous that no ordinary man could perform them. His first task was to slay a lion so mighty that its teeth could penetrate any armour, and it could not be killed by normal weapons. To prove himself, Hercules had to make the king an offering of its skin.’

 
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