Star of Africa, p.35Scott Mariani
Masango shrugged, as if saying, if he doesn’t want to talk, fine, fuck him. They clearly had more important matters to discuss. ‘So, Jean-Pierre. Is it true? You have it?’
‘I have it,’ Khosa said with a slow smile that he couldn’t suppress, and took out the enormous diamond to show his colleague. Under the bright sunlight, the unreal fist-sized rock seemed to be filled with dancing fire.
Masango shook his head in awe. ‘May I hold it?’
‘Careful, or my men will shoot,’ Khosa said, and they both laughed.
Masango clenched the diamond in his hands, gaping. ‘With this,’ he said, ‘anything is possible.’
‘And everything is within our grasp,’ Khosa said with a fire dancing in his own eyes.
Masango asked, ‘Can I take it to show my wife? She will be amazed.’
‘Of course. Take it, take it. Just make sure that you bring it back in the morning.’ Khosa burst out laughing and punched Masango’s arm playfully. Just two guys messing around. What a double act.
‘And now,’ Khosa said, turning his attentions back towards Ben, ‘the time has come to say goodbye.’
Ben stared at him, not understanding.
Khosa snapped his fingers. Two soldiers immediately hurried off towards the box truck. They came hurrying back seconds later, now three. They had Jude by the arms. His wrists were cuffed in front of him.
Jolts of alarm shot through Ben. What was happening here? ‘Jude?’
‘Ben? I don’t know where they’re taking me.’
‘What’s this about, Khosa?’ Ben demanded.
‘Where we are going, you will too busy to look after your son,’ Khosa said. ‘So my friend César will be looking after him now.’
Ben’s heart was skipping beats and his hands were beginning to tremble. The sun was burning hot, but a chill like a freezing fog was descending over him. ‘Where are you taking him?’
‘Somewhere safe,’ Khosa said. Then he chuckled and added, ‘Safe from his father. Do not worry, soldier, we will not let him come to too much harm. He is there to protect our investment.’
‘Investment in what?’ Ben snapped.
Masango said, ‘In you, Mister Hope.’ The political attaché made a big show of checking his watch. ‘Now, we have a long drive back, so …’
‘Do not let me keep you, César,’ Khosa said warmly. ‘Safe journey. We will talk soon, hmm?’
The soldiers transferred Jude into the hands of the bodyguard with the Uzi. He held Jude’s arm in a pincer grip and began steering him towards the limo, but Ben blocked his way and ignored the nine-millimetre snout of the machine pistol pointing at his midriff.
‘Let it go, Ben,’ Jude said. ‘You’ll only make it worse.’
‘This isn’t over,’ Ben told him. ‘You hear me? This is not over. I’ll find you.’
‘Put him in the car,’ Khosa said.
‘I’ll come for you, Jude,’ Ben said. He couldn’t disguise the catch in his voice.
And then Jude was being dragged towards the open back door of the limo. The man with the Uzi climbed in beside him, reached for the door handle and shut it with a soft clunk. Ben stared at the black-tinted rear window but could no longer see Jude inside.
César Masango gave Khosa a last wave and climbed into the other side of the limo’s rear. The car purred slowly off, bouncing and lurching over the rough ground until it reached the road, then accelerated smartly away.
Ben watched it go.
‘You will see him again, soldier. One day. Perhaps alive, too.’ Khosa walked away laughing.
Ben watched the limo shrink into the distance. He watched until all that could be seen was a tiny rooster-tail of dust on the horizon where the road melted hazily into the sky.
Then it was gone.
Jude was gone.
Ben closed his eyes and the ice wave of despair broke over him.
Then he opened them again. Said out loud, ‘No.’ Looked at his clenched fists and felt the power of his rage surging through him, as if it could boil his blood in his veins.
Khosa hadn’t won this thing yet. He just thought he had.
Ben pictured Khosa’s face in front of him, and made his promise to the man.
I will finish you. Sooner or later. No matter what. You’re a dead man walking. You might as well start digging your own grave.
And Ben didn’t know if he was imagining it or not, but from somewhere inside his mind he thought he could hear the echo of maniacal laughter.
END OF PART ONE
To be continued …
THE DEVIL’S KINGDOM
Sequel to STAR OF AFRICA and the concluding part of
Ben Hope’s epic African adventure
Available November 2016
Read on for an exclusive extract …
South Kivu Province,
Democratic Republic of Congo
It was a rough road that the lone Toyota four-wheel-drive was trying to negotiate, and the going was agonisingly slow. One moment the worn tyres would be slithering and fighting for grip in yet another axle-deep rut of loose reddish earth, the next the creaking, grinding suspension would bump so hard over the rubble and rocks strewn everywhere that the vehicle’s three occupants were bounced out of their seats with a crash that set their teeth on edge.
At this rate, it was going to be some more hours before they reached the remote strip where the light plane was due to pick up the two Americans and fly them and their precious cargo to Kavumu Airport, near Bukavu. Once safely arrived at the airport, the pair intended to waste no time before jumping on the first jet heading back home and getting the hell out of here. But safety and escape still seemed a long way beyond their reach right now. They were still very much in the danger zone, a fact that didn’t escape them for a moment.
The battered, much-repaired old Toyota was one of the few possessions of a local man named Joseph Maheshe who now and then hired himself out as a driver and guide to tourists. Not that many tourists came here any more, not even the thrill-seeking adventurous ones. It was a precarious place and an even more precarious trade for Joseph, but the only one he knew. He’d been a taxi driver in Kigali, back over the border in neighbouring Rwanda, when the troubles there twenty years earlier had forced him and his wife, both of them of Tutsi ethnicity, to flee their home never to return. Joseph had seen a lot in his time, and knew the dangers of this area as well as anyone. He wasn’t overjoyed that the two Americans had talked him into coming out here. He was liking the grinding sounds coming from his truck’s suspension even less.
While Joseph worried about what the terrible road surface was doing to his vehicle, his two backseat passengers had their own concerns to occupy their minds. They were a man and a woman, both dishevelled and travel-stained, both shining with perspiration from the baking heat inside the car, and both in a state of great excitement.
The man’s name was Craig Munro, and he was a middlingly-successful freelance investigative reporter based seven thousand miles from here in Chicago. In his late forties, he was nearly twice the age of his female companion. They weren’t any kind of an item; their relationship was, always had been and would remain professional, even though the lack of privacy when camping out rough for days and nights on end in this wilderness sometimes forced a degree more intimacy on them than either was comfortable with.
The woman’s name was Rae Lee, and she had worked for Munro as an assistant and photographer for the last eighteen months. Rae was twenty-five, second-generation Taiwanese American, and she’d been top of her law class at Chicago University for two years before switching tracks and studying photography at the city’s prestigious Art Institute. She had taken the job with Munro more for the experience, and for ideological reasons, than for the money – money being something that wasn’t always in good supply around her employer’s shabby offices in downtown Chicago. The camera equipment inside the metal cases that jostled
It was an investigative journalist’s dream. Everything they could have wished to find. More than they’d dared even hope for, which was the reason for their excitement. While at the same time, it was also the reason for their deep anxiety to get away and home as fast as possible. The kind of information and evidence they’d travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to acquire was precisely the kind that could get you killed. And the Congo was a very easy place in which to disappear without a trace, never to be seen again.
The hammering and lurching of the 4x4’s suspension made it impossible to have any kind of conversation, but neither Munro nor Rae Lee needed to speak their thoughts out loud. They were both thinking the same thing: that when they got back to the States, that was when their work would begin in earnest. The physical danger would be behind them, but the real grind would await, and Munro’s endless deskbound hours of writing the sensational article would be just part of it. There would be scores of calls to make, dozens more contacts to chase, many facts to verify before they could go live with this thing. It was serious business. While what they’d found would cause a substantial stir in certain quarters, not everyone would be pleased. Including some very wealthy and powerful people who would use every ounce of their influence to block the publication of this information in every way possible. But what they had was pure gold, and they knew it. They were going to be able to blow the lid off this whole dirty affair and open a lot of eyes to what was really happening out here.
‘How much further?’ Munro yelled, leaning forwards in the back and shouting close to Joseph’s ear to be heard.
‘It is a very bad road,’ the driver replied, as if this were news to them. He was a French speaker like many Rwandans past a certain age, and spoke English with a heavy accent. ‘Three hours, maybe four.’ Which put them still a long way from anywhere.
‘This is hopeless,’ Munro complained, flopping back in his seat.
Rae’s long hair, normally jet black, looked red from all the dust. She flicked it away from her face and twisted round to throw an anxious glance over her shoulder at the camera cases behind her. The gear was getting a hell of a jolting back there, though it was well protected inside thick foam. ‘We’ll be okay,’ she said to Munro, as much to reassure herself as him. ‘Everything’s fine.’
But as the Toyota bumped its way around the next corner a few moments later, they knew that everything wasn’t fine at all.
Rae muttered, ‘Oh, shit.’
Munro clamped his jaw tight and said nothing.
The two pickup trucks that blocked the road up ahead were the kind that were called ‘technicals’. Rae had no idea where that name had come from, but she recognised them instantly, because they weren’t hard to recognise. The flatbed of each truck was equipped with a heavy machine gun on a swivel mount, with ammunition belts drooping from them and coiled up on the floor like snakes. The machine guns were pointed up the road straight at the oncoming Toyota. A soldier stood behind each weapon, ready to fire. Several more soldiers stood in the road, all sporting the curved-magazine Kalashnikov assault rifles that Rae had quickly learned were a ubiquitous sight just about everywhere in the eastern Congo and probably all across the entire country, over a land mass bigger than all of Europe.
‘Could be government troops, maybe,’ Munro said nervously as the Toyota lurched towards the waiting roadblock. In a badly decayed and impoverished state where even regular army could closely resemble the most thrown-together rebel force, sometimes it was hard to tell.
‘Maybe,’ Joseph Maheshe said. He looked uncertain.
There was no driving around them, and certainly no way to double back. Joseph stopped the Toyota as the soldiers marched up and surrounded them, aiming their rifles at the windows. The unit commander was a skinny kid of no more than nineteen. He was draped in cartridge belts like a rapper wears gold chains and had a semiauto pistol dangling against his ribs in a shoulder holster. A marijuana roll-up the size of a small banana drooped from his mouth. His eyes were rolling and his finger was on the trigger of his AK47.
‘Let me handle this,’ Munro said, throwing open his door.
‘Be very careful, mister,’ Joseph Maheshe cautioned him. Anxiety was in his eyes.
As Munro stepped from the car two soldiers grabbed his arms and roughly hauled him away from the vehicle. Rae swallowed and emerged from the other passenger door, her heart thudding so hard she could hardly walk. She’d heard the stories. There were a lot of them, and they generally ended the same way.
The soldiers in the trucks and on the ground all spent a second or two eyeing the Oriental woman’s skimpy top, the honey flesh of her bare shoulders and as much of her legs as were made visible by the khaki shorts she was wearing. Her attractiveness was an unexpected bonus for them. A few exchanged grins and nods of appreciation, before the teen commander ordered them to search the vehicle. They started swarming around it, wrenching open the doors and tailgate and poking around inside. Munro and Rae were held at bay with rifles pointed at them. Joseph Maheshe didn’t try to resist as they hauled him out from behind the wheel.
The soldiers instantly took an interest in the flight cases in the back of the Toyota. The unit commander ordered they be opened up.
‘Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute,’ Munro said, putting on a big smile and brushing past the guns to speak to the commander. ‘You guys speak English, right? Listen, you really don’t need to open those. It’s just a bunch of cameras. What do you say, guys? We can come to an agreement. Nothing simpler, right?’ As he spoke, he reached gently into the pocket of his shorts, careful to let them see he wasn’t hiding a weapon in there, and slipped out a wallet from which he started drawing out banknotes marked BANQUE CENTRALE DU CONGO, the blue hundred-franc ones with the elephant on them.
The commander grabbed the wallet from him, tore out all the Congolese money that was inside as well as the wad of US dollars Munro was carrying, his credit cards and American driver’s licence, and stuffed it in his combat vest. He tossed away the empty wallet.
‘Hey. I didn’t mean for you to take all of it,’ Munro protested.
‘Shut up, motherfucka!’ the commander barked.
‘Give me back my dollars and my cards, okay? Come on, guys. Play fair.’
Rifles were pointed at Munro’s head and chest. Beads of sweat were breaking out on his brow and running into his eyes. He held up his palms.
‘What is your business here, American bastard?’ the commander asked.
‘Tourists,’ Munro said, his face reddening. ‘Me and my niece here. So can I have my dollars back, or what?’
Rae was thinking, Please be quiet. Please don’t make this worse. How could she be his niece? For such a gifted investigator, he was a hopeless liar.
The commander shouted orders at his men. Two of them stepped up, grabbed Munro by the arms and flung him on the ground. Rifle muzzles jabbed and stabbed at him, like poking hay. Rae screamed out, ‘Don’t shoot him! Please!’
More of the weapons turned to point at her. She closed her eyes, but they didn’t shoot. Instead, all three of them were held at gunpoint while the soldiers went on ransacking the Toyota. They opened up the camera cases, spilled out Rae’s gear and quickly found the Canon EOS with the long lens. The commander turned it on and flicked through the stored images, calmly puffing on his joint, until he’d seen enough to satisfy him. He shook his head gravely.
‘You are not tourists. You are motherfucka spies. We will report this to General Khosa.’
At the mention of the name Khosa, Rae went very cold. That was when she knew that nothing Munro could say or do would make this situation worse. It was already as bad as it could be.
‘Spies? What in hell are you talking about? I tell you we’re tourists!’ But it was
‘Kill this mkundu,’ the commander said to his soldiers. ‘When you are finished with the whore, cut her throat.’
Rae felt her stomach twist. She was going to be gang-raped and left butchered at the roadside like a piece of carrion for wild animals to dismember and gnaw on her bones. She wanted to throw up.
She had to save herself somehow.
And so she said the first thing that came to her.
‘Wait! My family are rich!’ she yelled.
The commander turned and looked at her languidly. He took another puff from his joint. ‘Rich? How rich?’
‘Richer than you can even imagine.’
He showed her jagged teeth. ‘Rich like Donald Trump?’
‘Richer,’ Rae said. That was an exaggeration, admittedly. It might have been true back in about 1971, twenty years before she was born. ‘If you don’t harm us, there will be a big, big reward for you.’ She spread her arms out wide, as if to show him just how much would be in it for him.
The commander digested this for a moment, then glanced down at Munro and kicked him in the ribs. ‘This motherfucka says he is your uncle.’
Munro grimaced in pain and clutched his side where he’d been kicked.
‘He’s my friend,’ Rae answered, fighting to keep her voice steady.
The commander seemed to find this hard to believe, but his main concern was money. ‘Is his family rich too?’
‘We’re Americans,’ she said. ‘All Americans are rich.’
The commander laughed. ‘What about him?’ He pointed at Joseph Maheshe.
‘He is just a stupid farmer,’ another of the soldiers volunteered. ‘How can he pay?’
‘This man is our driver,’ Rae protested. ‘He has nothing to do with this. Leave him out of it.’
The commander stepped closer to Joseph and examined him. Joseph had the classic Tutsi ethnicity, with fine features and a rather narrower nose, slightly hooked, that generally, though not always, distinguished them from Bantu peoples like the Hutu. During the Rwandan genocide it had been the worst curse of the Tutsi people that they could often be recognised at a glance.
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