Star of africa, p.34
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       Star of Africa, p.34

           Scott Mariani
 

  Khosa beamed, liking his idea more and more. He pointed again at Hercules, the real Hercules, surrounded by Khosa’s men with guns. ‘You say he is strong, soldier. Now let us see how strong he is. You! Big man! Go down there and kill this lion and bring me its skin.’

  Ben began, ‘General—’

  ‘Quiet! I have given an order. I am this man’s king. He is my vassal. He must now do as I tell him. There is to be no discussion!’

  ‘If you want to be a king,’ Ben said quietly, ‘then act like one. I can’t let you do this.’

  Khosa gave Ben another of his lingering, mind-scouring stares. ‘This is the last time you will dare to tell me what I can and cannot do. Let me show you, soldier, what I can do.’

  He motioned to his men. ‘Kill the boy.’

  Chapter 60

  The soldiers instantly raised their rifles. Over the roars of the trapped lion below them came the metallic rattle of actions being cocked, safeties being released. Jude stood very still, very stiff, very pale. He raised his chin and looked resolutely into Ben’s eyes, as if to say ‘It’s all right.’

  ‘No,’ Ben said.

  Khosa slowly turned back to gaze at Ben. ‘No?’

  ‘Don’t kill him.’

  ‘Are you commanding your king?’

  ‘I’m asking,’ Ben said, fighting to keep his voice steady. His eyes were locked on Jude’s.

  ‘Does one now ask a king, as an equal?’

  ‘All right,’ Ben said. ‘I’m begging.’

  Jude gave a single shake of his head. It’s okay. Really.

  Khosa smiled and said, ‘Better. Now tell me why I should not kill him.’

  ‘Because if you do, it ends our arrangement,’ Ben said.

  ‘Then you have accepted my offer, soldier? Because I was not sure that you had, in your heart. I am not sure that you did not try to trick me before. A clever man like you is full of tricks, hmm?’

  Ben said, ‘Yes. I accept and agree.’

  ‘With all your heart?’

  ‘With all my heart.’

  ‘Am I a wise and just king?’

  ‘Yes,’ Ben said. ‘Very wise and very just.’

  ‘You will serve me with loyalty?’

  ‘To the last,’ Ben said.

  ‘And obey my orders?’

  ‘Without question,’ Ben said.

  Khosa looked pleased. He glanced at the soldiers still pointing their rifles at Jude’s head, then looked back at Ben. ‘As you are my military advisor, let me ask your advice. Should I order my men to kill the boy, or should I send Hercules into combat with this lion?’

  The huge tawny cat was still struggling to escape from the ditch. It was clawing and raking at the earth banks in a desperate attempt to clamber up and away to safety, but without the power in its hindquarters it still couldn’t gain the momentum to scramble up the sheer slope. The bank was becoming eroded away by its efforts and becoming only more vertical as the lion dug itself in deeper.

  Ben said nothing. He could feel Jeff’s presence behind him, and Tuesday’s, and Gerber’s. He could sense the grim strain coming off all three of them like electric charge from a high-voltage cable. Nobody spoke. Ben looked down at the lion. Looked across at Jude. Then at Hercules.

  ‘I am waiting for my advisor’s counsel,’ Khosa said with a raised eyebrow.

  ‘Shoot me,’ Jude called out. ‘It’s my choice. Go ahead and shoot me and let Hercules live.’

  Khosa kept his eyes on Ben as he said, ‘It is not your decision to make, White Meat. It is for my advisor to choose. But I hear nothing from him. Perhaps he is not a good advisor after all. Perhaps I have misplaced my faith in his judgement, and should replace him.’

  Ben looked again at Hercules.

  There’s nothing I can do, he said with his eyes.

  Hercules looked back at him. I know.

  I’m so sorry.

  I know.

  Forgive me.

  ‘I don’t want my son to die,’ Ben said to Khosa.

  Khosa asked keenly, ‘That is your choice?’

  Ben swallowed hard. ‘Yes. That’s my choice.’

  Khosa nodded. ‘So it will be. For the moment.’ He turned to the soldiers by Jude and waved down the rifles. Then he turned to the soldiers by Hercules.

  ‘Put him in the hole.’

  The soldiers closed in around Hercules. Hands grabbed his thick arms. He didn’t try to resist. His shoulders sagged and his eyes were full of nothing but sadness.

  Ben bowed his head as they shoved Hercules to the edge of the ditch and toppled him down the slope. The big man went slithering and sliding downwards, throwing up a plume of loose dirt and grunting as he hit the bottom.

  The lion saw him and turned. Sensing a new threat, it lost interest in trying to escape. The law of nature. Flight was impossible. Now it had something to fight, instead. It lowered its maned head close to the ground and its shoulder muscles coiled and rippled under the matted fur. Its black lips gaped open in a snarl, showing fangs like devil’s horns.

  Hercules backed away. He threw a helpless, wide-eyed glance up at the crowd above him.

  ‘In the legend,’ Khosa declared, ‘Hercules used a club to kill the lion. Even a mighty warrior should have a weapon. Throw him a club.’

  One of the soldiers jerked the magazine out of his AK-47, jacked the round from the chamber and then tossed the rifle into the ditch. Hercules hesitated and then picked up the empty weapon, holding it by the barrel with the triangular wooden buttstock raised shoulder-high like a bat.

  Ben’s knees sagged under him. He wanted to curl up on the ground and sleep, but he knew he couldn’t sleep again for a long time. Maybe for the rest of his life.

  Hercules faced the lion. ‘Come on then, motherfucker!’

  The lion’s snout wrinkled into another snarl. It made explosive huffing sounds from its chest and blew from its nostrils and pawed at the ground. Its great amber eyes gazed impassively at its trapped prey.

  Then it attacked with all the massive force and shocking aggression of the most dangerous land predator in Africa. A lame, sick, starving lion. But still a lion. Five hundred pounds or more of muscle and teeth and lashing claws. Twice Hercules’s weight. Ten times the strength of even the strongest human. It was only in the story world of old legends that a man armed with nothing but a club could defeat such an animal.

  Hercules never had a chance. His first and only swing of the empty rifle struck the lion with what to a human would have been a skull-crushing blow across the side of the head, but the cat barely flinched and kept on coming. It swatted Hercules to the ground with one swipe of a forepaw the size of a dinner plate. Then it crushed him with its weight and closed its jaws around his thick neck and shook him from side to side like a terrier shaking a rat.

  The screaming didn’t last very long. Hercules was soon almost dead, although he was still moving, the fingers of an outflung and bloody arm flexing and twitching in the dirt. The lion backed away, sniffing at him, one paw cocked to prod and roll him to test if he was still alive. Then it closed back in and bit him again, ripping into his flesh. Hercules’s arms and legs flailed and jerked spasmodically as the lion tore into the muscles of his shoulder and back, but ninety percent of it was just nerve response. He couldn’t feel much any longer.

  At least, Ben hoped he couldn’t.

  Khosa watched with a smile as the lion pulled Hercules apart. It ripped off one arm, tossed it aside, then ripped off the other. Then it buried its face into what was left of his throat. Chewing, tugging, tearing, swallowing.

  By now Lou Gerber was on the ground, weeping openly.

  ‘Make the goat man watch,’ Khosa commanded. The soldiers seized Gerber’s arms and yanked him back to his feet.

  It was another long, agonising minute before Khosa got bored with the bloody spectacle. ‘He has failed the test,’ he declared. ‘It is as I thought. This man was never a true warrior. Now let us return to the village. I have more business to attend to
there.’

  Chapter 61

  Ben was barely conscious of the presence of the soldiers around him as he walked back to the village. He could only dimly sense that Jude, Jeff and the others were looking at him. He couldn’t return their looks. He felt as though he had lead weights attached to his legs. His head was filled with a kind of buzzing and everything seemed somehow distant and unreal.

  Back at the village, the rearguard of soldiers left behind stood over Sizwe’s five companions, still kneeling on the ground with their heads bowed so low that their hair brushed the dirt. Sizwe himself would be long gone now. If he had any sense. Running through the bush, stricken with grief, streaming tears in the knowledge that his friends and family could no longer be saved, and there was nothing he could do but try to stay alive himself.

  Trust me, Ben had said. And Sizwe had trusted him. And now it had come to this.

  Khosa ordered for the village’s vehicles to be brought, and soldiers hurried off to fetch them. Moments later, the grunt and snort of diesel engines filled the air. This was Africa, where fuel stations were so few and far that even the poorest man kept his truck fully gassed, if he could afford one at all, and loaded it with all the spare jerrycans he could fill. The vehicles lumbered through the village: a scarred and rusted-out old Mercedes-Benz L-series nineteen-ton heavy truck, and an even more ragged long-wheelbase Land Rover with a spare wheel mounted on the bonnet and a canvas top so ripped by thorns and branches that it was hanging in tatters. Both were blowing clouds of smoke, and their engines clattered and rattled.

  Ben didn’t have many prayers left in him, but he was praying that the arrival of the vehicles would spur Khosa to get out of here before he wrought worse carnage on the blighted village.

  Once more, Ben’s prayers went unanswered.

  After Khosa had surveyed the vehicles and seemed satisfied with them, he turned his attention back to Uwase, Ntwali, Gasimba, Mugabo and Rusanganwa, the five them all kneeling silently in the dirt. ‘I have tried to show fairness to these men,’ he proclaimed, in a tone that conveyed both his greatness as a leader and his hurt at their betrayal. ‘I have offered them the chance of freedom, for themselves and their families. What do they offer in return? Treachery. They have proved to me that they are nothing more than cockroaches. Unworthy of mercy. Unworthy of life.’

  Khosa paused. He shook his head, solemnly, like a judge weighing up the gravity of the moment before passing sentence.

  ‘You will bring the women and children,’ he told the soldiers. ‘You will make them kneel here before me. Then you will kill the children in front of their mothers. Cut off their heads. Then cut off the heads of the mothers. Then you will kill the last of the men. Kill them all.’

  And they did.

  Chapter 62

  Afterwards, the dark clouds that had been gathering like battlefield smog in the air finally burst, as if a giant knife had reached up to the heavens and slashed their guts open. The rainstorm came down in solid sheets, lashing and pounding the ground. It washed the blood into the earth, and washed the earth into rivers of purple mud. But nothing would ever wash the stench of death from this place.

  A dismal hush fell over the remaining prisoners as they let themselves be herded into the Mercedes box truck. They moved slowly through the rain. Their clothes and hair were soaked, but they didn’t care. The soldiers barked and shoved and jabbed. They didn’t care about them, either.

  Soon afterwards, the heavily laden trucks were bumping and lurching away in tandem from the silent village, down the muddied track towards the dirt road. Heading west, big tyres crashing through flooded potholes, headlights poking beams through the deluge, wipers slapping back and forth as fast as they could bat the rain aside. Khosa had made Ben ride with him in the lead vehicle. The General lounged in the front of the Land Rover with one elbow crooked on the door sill, laughing at his own jokes and smoking and talking away happily.

  Khosa, the victor. Khosa, the king. The unquestioned lord of all he surveyed, wherever he went. With the diamond in his pocket, a gigantic fortune at his fingertips. And nothing to stop him.

  Ben sat still, silent and numb. He felt as though his heart had broken, for Jude, for the villagers, for Hercules, for all of them. It was as if all his strength had left him and would never return. A feeling he’d never experienced with such overwhelming intensity before. He played back in his mind things that had happened in the course of his life. The grief of losing loved ones. The bitter wrench of failure. The worst times he’d come through.

  He’d thought he’d known what it felt like to be swallowed up in absolute black despair.

  He’d been wrong.

  He’d had no idea what it felt like. Not until this moment.

  The trucks rumbled on through the rain, and then through the night, and on through the first glimmers of morning when the sunrise turned the light the colour of blood. Deeper and deeper into a different world. One in which human life was cheaper than dirt. Where a man with absolute power and the ruthlessness to wield it could do anything he liked, unchecked.

  This was not Ben’s world any more.

  Ben was in Khosa’s world now.

  Later that day, they crossed from Rwanda into the Congo, over a flimsy river bridge at a point on the border where there were no checks, no stops, no authorities within fifty miles. Soon after that, as they rumbled along an arrow-straight dirt highway that shot ahead to infinity through a vista of rolling green plains and faraway hazy mountains, they were met by a contingent of Khosa’s forces that had been contacted by radio to rendezvous with them.

  They appeared at first like a shape-shifting spectrum of colour through a heat shimmer where the road met the sky, moving fast at the heart of a great swirling dust cloud that resembled an approaching sandstorm. Moving fast, detail falling into focus as they sped closer and closer. The dull glint of sunlight on matt-painted bodywork and bull bars and dusty windscreens. Big brutal tyres crunching the road surface. The line stretched out far behind the lead vehicle. There must have been thirty or forty of them. It was a whole fleet of what irregular armies called ‘technicals’, which were civilian pickup trucks modified for warfare. Most of them crudely spray-painted in splodges of green and brown camouflage. Several were equipped with half-inch-calibre American Browning heavy machine guns or Russian-made anti-aircraft cannons fixed on swivel mounts behind the cab. The kind of firepower that could level a forest or decimate a whole town. They were the only vehicles in sight, as if they owned the road. Perhaps they did own it. Nobody, not even regular government troops, would have stood in their way in any case.

  The approaching convoy blasted a symphony of honking horns as they recognised their leader. Khosa had the Land Rover pull off the road, followed by the Mercedes box truck, and moments later they were surrounded by a roaring, bouncing mass of vehicles that skidded to a halt on the rough ground and spewed scores of Khosa’s militia fighters all running to greet and welcome him like a returning hero. The force of thirty that had travelled from Somalia had now swelled to over two hundred heavily armed soldiers. Ben hadn’t seen this many guns all together in one place in a long time.

  Then the final vehicle at the tail end of the convoy came into view, still far off, a speeding black dot trailing a dust cloud and gradually growing larger. As he stepped down from the Land Rover and tried to spot Jude, Jeff and the others among the crowd disembarking from the box truck, Ben detected a palpable sense of excitement among the soldiers and heard exclamations of ‘Here he comes!’ and ‘Masango is coming!’

  The car wasn’t an armoured pickup, nor a four-wheel-drive of any description, but a long Mercedes limousine, shiny black coachwork stained with the dirt of a long drive on unmade roads. It slowed as it reached the mass gathering of vehicles and pulled gently off the road, wallowing and rocking on its soft suspension. Its windows were a smoky tint just short of black, and Ben could make out no more than dark shapes in the front seats and nothing at all in the rear.

 
The limousine rolled to a halt. The driver stayed where he was and kept the engine purring while the front-seat passenger got out. He looked like a bodyguard. A tough, burly African, incongruously well dressed in the midst of all the military khaki. Italian silk draped over planes of sculpted muscle. Dark glasses. Stubby Uzi submachine pistol. He stalked around to the rear door and opened it, and out stepped a tall, thin and elegant black man with silvering hair and an expensive light grey suit.

  This would be Masango, Ben thought. But who was he?

  Khosa had been doing an exultant victory lap of his two-hundred-strong fighting force when he saw the limo pull up and broke away from his men to come striding to meet it. He and the tall man in the grey suit shook hands and patted each other’s shoulders like old friends.

  As much as Ben wanted to go and find Jude and his friends, he wanted to know who this man Masango was. He walked around the front of the parked Land Rover and leaned on its square wing, watching and listening.

  ‘You had us worried, Jean-Pierre,’ the tall man was saying. ‘When I heard about the plane—’

  ‘It was nothing,’ Khosa laughed, brushing it off. ‘I decided to take the scenic route.’

  The scenic route, Ben thought, and went on watching the two men in disgust as they laughed and backslapped and bantered some more. Khosa seemed to sense Ben’s eyes on them. He turned and guided the tall man by the elbow to meet him, as if doing polite introductions on the country club lawn at a society party.

  ‘Soldier, I want you to meet César Masango,’ Khosa said, curling an arm around Masango’s shoulders. ‘He is my political attaché. He is the man who is going to help put me into power one day very soon.’

  Masango offered his hand to Ben. ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister—?’

  Ben ignored the hand and didn’t move or speak.

  ‘The soldier is my military advisor, but sometimes does not say very much,’ Khosa said, flashing a look at Ben.

 
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