The smell is there to remind you that whatever you’re cooking up, you still have to get it out of the pot.
Of the three men waiting in the airport controller’s office, two were well used to the smell of Africa, and liked it. The third wasn’t, and didn’t.
The early morning sun slatted horizontally in the open windows as sharply defined columns of crimson light, reminding at least one of the men of filtered theatre spotlights. Outside the windows, so still was the air, the cicadas and the crickets could be heard whirring and rustling amongst the acacia bushes that were the airport controller’s pride. On this particular Brazzaville morning, however; and not simply because the time stood at five-thirty a.m., well before office hours, the controller was not himself in residence behind his desk - though he was somewhere in the building. Instead, his swivel chair was occupied by an expensively-suited man – the unbeliever - whose cadaverous features had earned him the nickname “D.H.” At least amongst his subordinates the initials stood for a studiously unkind “Death’s Head” The fact that his actual name was Denzil Hart, and that he was a head of department, had only providential links with the roots of the contraction; though it certainly smoothed a path that could otherwise have been bumpy. The rest of the world, however, and in particular the world of Intelligence, where actual given names were avoided, knew him as “Brown”. His was the voice of M.I.6 for the entire Middle East. Well-bred, well-educated, he possessed the easy drawling tone of one who could appear slightly contemptuous of those around him. Even when the opposite might have been true. Which was not often.
On this day, however, Brown appeared exactly as he was; relaxed and in command - they were committed now to an action that had been agreed upon at the highest possible levels, and the shooting script had been written in ink of the most indelible kind. For most intents and purposes one only had to raise the clapper board and call: Roll ‘em!
Roll ‘em! Brown allowed a taut smile to pick at his features - his smiles, when he chose to smile at all, were always taut, theatrical affairs - as, from way off to the north, the unmistakable sound of an approaching jetliner insinuated itself upon the soundtrack of that West African dawn. Aware that the other two men were watching him, if surreptitiously, Brown leant forward slightly to study the still dark-shadowed southern sky with a kind of unqualified curiosity, as if the approaching aircraft and all it signified was of secondary interest to him. The unspoken message was that he, at least, was confident in the knowledge of what the coming day would offer.
One of the other men, a square-shouldered individual with a face as angular as the administration building itself, and wearing a loose-fitting safari suit and open-toed sandals, gave up trying to gauge, and cater for, Brown’s mood. He glanced at his watch. “On time, by Christ!” he said grittily. He glanced at the third member of the trio. “Is that a bloody miracle, or what?” Frank Weir, an ex guards officer, immediately regretted the remark. It was rhetoric, and Weir hated rhetoric. And he wondered whether this damned business was playing on his mind more than he had thought.
Ian Mackinson, seated near the door, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, his crossed legs stretched out in front of him, flicked a glance at the clock on the wall - upon which the airport controller had tagged a printed sign that read: “Looking will not make me go any faster!” - nodded briefly, but said nothing. Of all the “production staff” connected with the impending drama, he alone was experiencing deep reservations about the methods DH was about to employ.
Mackinson was the West Africa station head and this was his domain; all 900,000 square miles of it. DH, certainly, was considerably further up the S.I.S chain of command but, with his main office in the Thamesside Century House H.Q. of M.I.6, he was much less qualified in his knowledge of Africa and African events. Also, Mackinson knew mercenaries; he knew that nothing connected with mercenary activities ever panned out according to even the most rigorous scripting. The drawing board was one thing, but translating even the best thought-out schemes into hard facts, particularly here in Africa, was something else again. And in the end, as ever, it would be left for him to sort out the tangle. It was an equation that the “head office” planners, in their sweet-smelling London offices, constantly failed to appreciate. Mackinson might have felt easier in his mind had there been a viable “plan B” in place. But no such plan existed, despite Mackinson’s many attempts to cover that angle.
From somewhere over in the terminal building, 500 yards from the office window, a tannoy bleated out its soft, indecipherable message, and as if this were a cue, the hubbub of an airport making ready to receive its first incoming flight of the day swelled to stain the peace. The cicadas and the crickets, apparently recognizing that the struggle was now unequal, gave up and fell silent. The approaching aircraft, still a mile short of the runway, swung left into its landing pattern, the rising sun glinting redly on its angled wings.
“Check with Graham,” murmured Brown, flicking a glance at Weir.
Weir lifted his transceiver to his head. “All set on the pan?” Weir was a deal more laid back about the whole thing than Ian Mackinson. But he could afford to be; he was not a planner. That particular buck stopped many miles from his door. And, for once, he did not begrudge Mackinson his local seniority. Quite the reverse. He was delighted to be nothing more than a dogsbody on this one.
“All set,” came the metallic reply.
From his seat at the controller’s desk, Brown said, “Remind him. No fuss.”
Weir nodded and pressed the transmit button. “A clean job, Graham. No fuss.”
“Yes, yes,” replied the voice impatiently. “Have no fear.”
Weir glanced at Brown, who nodded, apparently satisfied that the man over in the terminal building realized the importance of what he had to do, and the way he had to do it. Nevertheless, Weir spoke again into the W/T. “It’s your arse for breakfast, Doug!”
There was no reply.
Brown grunted noncommittally. “Now Simmons.”
Weir changed channels on the handset. “How’re our Chinese friends, Herbie?”
There was no immediate reply. Weir leant forward in his seat and peered out over the taxiing area. He repeated his question into the W/T. Then the tiny loudspeaker crackled and another voice, apparently whispering, answered. “Position two. No change. The flight has just been announced.”
“We heard it,” said Weir. “Let me know if they start to get edgy. And tell me if they don’t actually announce the spot check.”
The whispering voice chuckled. “Two they’s there, Pete, old son. I assume the latter refers to the airport people as opposed to the Chinese.”
Weir clucked his tongue and looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Just stay alert.”
“As you command, skipper,” said the voice. “Lert, out!”
Weir allowed the W/T to fall on its strap. “Bloody comic!” he said to no one in particular.
Brown rose up and walked to the window. He watched the aircraft sinking lower in the sky. He wished he had his camera with him; this sunrise was quite the most spectacular he had witnessed since his arrival well over a week ago. Even as he looked, the canopy overhead lost its depth, turned a radiant pink, then a translucent yellow. Now it was one of the crispest blues he could imagine, He lowered his gaze to the horizon. There, it was still crimson; like a Turner watercolor, with the sun shimmering on what could have been a bed of spun silk. It really was quite beautiful. How could a landscape capable of such magnificence, he wondered, remind him of passing downwind of the public toilets on a walk through Holland Park?
At his back, Mackinson said, “Just so long as Jo-burg has its facts straight.” Mackinson was aware that he was trundling over well-trodden ground; that such observations were academic now. But as second in command, if only for this current operation, such was his function, his job.
Brown made no pretense at stifling a sigh. He did not turn. He wanted to see the sunrise to its conclusion. He said, “When was the last time Eric Walton made a mistake.” It was not a question. Perhaps the first time he had responded to that particular line of reasoning, it had been. But not any more.
“All the same,” Mackinson persisted. “It only needs one of them to realize what we’re up to. South Africa is sniffing at us like bloodhounds, despite the New Order. Or probably because of it. And there’s that new report from Washington.”
Brown sighed again. He turned and looked Mackinson square in the eyes. Okay, let’s go over it again! “The Americans know nothing,” he said, his tone dripping undisguised forbearance. “And they would not be interested in any case. There’s nothing for them here. As for South Africa...well, it’s a case of nobody liking a fairy when she’s forty.” Brown allowed himself a small grin of self-appreciation for that one. Back in the real world he dabbled in amateur operatics and had sung that song on more than one occasion. He began to whistle it to himself now; softly, more breath than tune, as the sun finally shook itself clear of Mother Earth. The horizon lost its color. In fact, in the space of those few seconds, the whole picture had changed. Now there was nothing out there but trees, half-completed buildings, ugly structures and car headlights among the shadows; and even these were flicking off one by one. The ambience, now, matched the view. Brown turned, the moment of magic over.
“You worry too much,” he admonished Mackinson. And too bloody often! he added to himself. “The girl is safe under Walton’s wing. And she is the key. As long as we don’t touch her we have an operation. Besides,” he added, “the man is a mercenary, is he not? And mercenaries work for hard cash. Her Majesty’s government is parting with a lot of the stuff. We may not even have to mention the girl.”
Mackinson had never been convinced by that argument. “There are mercenaries, and there are mercenaries, sir.” He added, “with respect. This man is not run-of-the-mill. He’s a much-decorated veteran. And still an officer.” He glanced at the thick file on the desk in front of Brown and wondered if the man had actually read it. “But it’s not just him. It’s everything else. We’re still not secure here, sir. With my hand on my heart I can’t tell you otherwise. I wish I could!”
Brown nodded, his expression mixed. Which is precisely why I am here! “Mackinson,” he said patiently, “The minute we have this man in Zaire, we are home and dry. “ He nodded vaguely towards the window. “And that moment will occur the instant the wheels of that aircraft touch tarmac. That’s what we must concentrate on. Nothing else!” He walked back to his seat. “The die is cast now. Okay?” The last word had a good measure of heavy censure in it.
Mackinson stifled a sigh of his own. This was head office wisdom at its most dangerous. However, despite everything, he allowed himself a moment of private satisfaction. The saving grace was that Mackinson had made his protests in company of others. All the way down the line. So, if push came to shove...
The tract of solid clay amid the swamplands of Zaire, north-east of the confluence of the Zaire and Lulanga rivers, currently occupied by an assortment of vine-choked and rotting portacabins known to mercenary soldiers since 1962 as Camp-One, has had at least three variously documented tenants. The earliest of these, according to the diaries of one Abraham Smart (1789-1852), an American adventurer and would-be elephant hunter, was an Omani slaver called Mohammed Pasha, who used the place as a staging post where he would assemble and fetter his merchandise prior to the long trek westward to the Bay of Benin.
Pasha was perhaps the most daring, the most prolific of all the 18th century slave traders, sometimes force-marching upwards of 3,000 souls from the place that came to be known as Kanyamifupa: “The Place of Bones.”
How Pasha came upon Kanyamifupa in the first place is a matter for conjecture though it can reasonably be assumed that he was aware of the forbidding awe in which the local tribes held the rain forests in general and, in particular, the swamplands. He certainly used this knowledge to his best advantage.
Smart records that after an attack by pygmies using poisoned darts and arrows in which fifty of his original column of some sixty black porters and six whites were killed, the survivors, stripped of everything except that which they had strapped to their persons, which could not have been much, and without the precious compasses: “...and with not one ounce of dry powder between us...” happened upon one of Pasha’s cutting-out expeditions led, luckily for Smart and the others, by Pasha himself.
Pasha, an inordinately well-educated and westernized individual despite his calling, agreed to accept Smart’s promissory note for two thousand pounds, payable in silver, in return for providing safe conduct back to the coast in company, Smart writes : “...with more slaves than could cherries be counted on the tree...”
Smart apparently spent four agonizing months at The Place of Bones before Pasha was finally ready to move westward.
There is a note in Smart’s diaries - preserved in the archives of a famous Boston, Massachusetts, museum - to the effect that he and the other members of his party made several attempts to: “...escape...Once, myself, Dean and Hornsby, foolishly decided to attempt a southward exit...the waiting was unbearable...the smell of that evil place tore at the mind, the very substance of one’s being...Poor Hornsby sank to a cloying death almost within our grasps...” Eventually, however, the trek was made and the coast reached. Smart makes no mention of whether or not he honored his promissory note but it is clear that he wiped Africa from his list of continents upon which to seek his fortune, turning his attentions to the American west.
Mohammed Pasha died in 1841, apparently taking the secret of Kanyamifupa with him. But the link between The Place Of Bones and present-day Camp-One is obvious, for, a little over a century later, a German major called Claus von Zetterheim records in an official report dated 1913:
“...Our craft(?) was lost to us some considerable distance upstream of a small settlement known locally as Lulonga and we were cast ashore in swampland...several of my command were lost to crocodiles and other river beasts (one presumes he uses that term in its derogatory sense) and others to the deep, sometimes unperceived swamps...Finally, myself and leutnant Han came upon firm ground where we were greatly surprised to find amongst the prolific vines and ferns a large number of branch-constructed cages, strewn about in confusion amongst dry, human bones by the veritable pile...”
The report goes on to say that out of his original command of over forty trained troops, all of them familiar with jungle fighting and survival, only seven managed to join Zetterheim at what could only have been Kanyamifupa, where they were to remain: “...for five long months, living off the land whilst searching a way out.”
Of his eventual escape and return to civilization, von Zetterheim writes:
“...We had traced, by God’s Grace, plus diligent quartering and mapping, a foot-firm passage, sometimes as wide as two tanks side by side, a distance of some ten kilometers...a slow, tortuous task, over a period of months...Then, quite by chance, Hardenburg(?) noticed a recurring peculiarity about the undergrowth...The blue Dicindra vine, which grows in profusion in the soft, sucking mud, was not evident upon the firm clay we were tracing...Reliant solely upon this freak of nature we eventually entered the elephant grass east of the swamplands, and made our way into the rain forests, which seemed paradise compared to the unholy land we had left behind us...”
It was to be another four months, however, making a total of nine, before von Zetterheim and two un-named survivors, having turned inexplicably south and east - they were headed west! - came upon a native village on the bank of the then Congo River, just across from present-day Mbandaka. Barely seventy kilometers downstream of the place of the original disaster! von Zetterheim’s report - oddly enough still listed as classified information - was the basis for the next and subsequent “users” of Kanyamifupa.
In 1962 the German mercenary commander, Heinz Behr, charged with the task of organizing nuisance raids into the Mongo territory of the Congo - now Zaire -, the strategy of which was to keep the Simbas occupied in the north so that less attention could be paid to the cities of the south: Kinshasa, Libreville and Brazzaville, remembered having once seen and read von Zetterheim’s report during his - Behr’s - stint in the New German Army. He reasoned that a forward base so close to the proposed area of operations would be invaluable, especially in view of the fact that most Simbas distained utterly to enter the rain forests. He also knew that the swamplands were some kind of a taboo area for the northern Congo tribes, all of which underscored the strategic importance of a place like Kanyamifupa.
Behr’s method of location was simple if painstaking. He hand-picked a team of Kikuyu and Bantu soldiers and scoured, from north to south, the tract of elephant grass which divided the rain forests proper from the swamps. Knowing exactly what to look for he eventually, after no less than three complete sweeps over a period of eight days, located Zetterheim’s: “...tract of Dicindra-free clay...” Three days after that Behr stepped into The Place of Bones. What he found there, or how many men he lost along the way, is not known, for he made no notes - his clinical mind obviously on a different plain from that of an explorer, or a regular army major. At all events, Behr considered Kanyamifupa ideal for his purpose, and he immediately renamed it “Camp-One”.
Helicopters were less than useless as a mode of transport into and out of Camp-One, as the trees, though far from rain forest sized, were sufficiently tall and thick-knitted to forbid all methods of vertical approach. He was forced to truck his men and equipment down from Makanza. The huts and portacabins were barged up-river some time later; after Behr had realized that, in fact, the tract of clay stretched all the way from the elephant grass to the river, and that the area of “Kanyamifupa” was merely a widening of that tract.
Later still, after Makanza had fallen to the Simbas, he wrote a friend that he had over-flown the camp, with knowledge of its precise whereabouts, and had still been unable to see any signs of it through the foliage. Behr was killed during the raid on Basankuzu, June 3rd., 1963, and his replacement, an American called Robert McCann - “Robbie” - saw Camp-One for the first time one month later. There were no traces now of bones or cages. At least not in the camp itself. Occasionally though, in the nature of living swamp, some bones do come to the surface south of the camp. It is not known who gathered them up and buried them there. Probably Behr.
The following story is not an epitaph to The Place of Bones; it is an episode in a continuing saga. For reasons too complex to go into here, “Robbie” has been allowed to tell his own story. The others, those who could be contacted, expressed no such desire.
I woke up to a tinny voice informing us that we were about to land at Brazzaville International Airport and would we fasten our seatbelts and ensure that our seats were in the upright position. My head ached and my eyes were scratchy. My nerves jangled and demanded that I go back to sleep. I have never liked over-night flights. I looked out the window. The sky sat on Africa like a red-velvet cushion with blue-white trimmings. I did not say: “Hello again, Africa” or anything like that, not even in my mind. I just looked down at it.
I did what I had to do with the seat and tried to ignore the fact that I needed a smoke, despite that my mouth tasted as if I'd been eating graves. And now I felt cold. I told myself it was because of the cabin air conditioning, but was really not so sure.
The aircraft lurched and shuddered as the flaps went down. Outside the window, Africa tilted sideways. I closed my eyes and wished I was somewhere else. I thought: If wishes were horses... All in vain. Africa was all I knew. And if I was not exactly over the moon to be back in the reins, I was not, in truth, desperately unhappy either. This was me. My choice. Always had been and always would. I shook myself mentally. This was a good contract. It was a better one for the Chinese. Contracts are always better for the employer. Negative thoughts again!
I studied the scene unfolding outside my window. Down there somewhere were three hundred mercenaries; the largest clandestine force I’d had under my command for some time.
As the aircraft sank shivering out of the sky I heard “Cat”Souchet’s voice in my head: “They’re over there, Robbie. I’m sure of it.”
In my mind’s eye, we were standing on the west bank of what used to be called the Congo River - now the Zaire River - and Souchet was referring to a group of Simbas that had been after our blood for weeks.
“Over there,” I said sardonically, but knowing exactly what he meant, “are three thousand square miles of rain forest. So, yes, I guess you could say that.”
Souchet was his usual humorless self. “I mean just over there! Waiting for us to cross.”
“So what do you suggest? We don’t cross?”
Souchet sighed deeply as only a French man knows how. He sank down onto his haunches and rested his unshaven chin on the barrel of his A.K.assault rifle, his blue, sad eyes scanning the forbidding wall of trees on the far side of that swirling watercourse. “I suggest,” he said softly, “we think about it.”
I grunted. “And we all know where thought gets us.”
Which was never so true. Not then, not now, as the aircraft made messy contact with Africa and the engines screamed in reverse thrust. I did not look out of the window again. I waited until the crush of travel-weary bodies had thinned. Then I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Here we were. Then I rose up and retrieved my briefcase from the rack, sorted out my passport and papers and, since there was now a comfortable gap between the tail-end of the jumble of people and my row of seats, I stepped out into the aisle. Yes, for good or evil, I was back.
It is true that I had not expected to be back so soon but, now that the plane was on the ground, I realized, or thought I realized, that did not matter. In recent years my self-imposed spells of Rest and Recreation had proved less and less efficacious. This latest break, for example, had been an unmitigated disaster during which I had been utterly unable to rid my mind of the faces and the voices of dead men; men I had killed, men who had died alongside me, and men who apparently wanted nothing but to be left alone. It got so bad at one stage that I seriously thought about diving under the limpid waters off Crete, and staying there. I did not do that, of course. But I had seriously considered it; which speaks volumes.
At the time, I was quite pleased to have received my visitor; the “official” of the Bank of China. I remember shaking his hand warmly and saying yes to all he had to offer. The second thoughts came later. When it was too late. Which was probably just as well.
So, here I was back in the Congo. Two months before I’d planned to be. Was I glad to be there? Perversely, I thought now that I was. Certainly, I looked forward with interest to see how Camp-One had stood the test of time. I thought about that and my mind took another skip backward. Except that this time the recalled incident held no dark connotations. It was Souchet again. Why was his memory so predominant lately? He was talking to Mblindi, the Nigerian sergeant.
“Where there’s garbage, there’s rats.”
“Rats do’n scare me, bwana.”
“Bien sur. But where there’s rats, there’ll be a Black Mamba nearby!”
I smiled at the mental image of this gangly sergeant chivvying a force of battle-hardened irregulars into camp-cleaning details. Then the smile faded with the memory. No amount of cleaning would ever fumigate Kanyamifupa - The Place of Bones.
I nodded at the usual platitudes of the cabin staff and stepped out into the damp warmth of the African dawn. And there it was; the smell. Africa’s Chanel No.5. And the memories threatened to flood back yet again. I pushed them aside. A woman in front of me crinkled up her nose and pulled a face at the man with her, who merely raised non-committal eyebrows. I vaguely wondered what they were doing here. Holiday, maybe. Business? Just passing through? Whatever their reason, it would not be as detrimental as my own. Or would it? Africa, after all, was there to be taken advantage of.
I had a wild thought that perhaps they ought to start again with this continent. Failing that, placing an immediate ban on people like myself would be a damned good alternative.
I descended the steps and squeezed myself aboard the airport bus. The door hissed shut behind me. I felt dirty and disheveled because I was. I ignored the other passengers and they ignored me. Which was fine. Inside the terminal building it was immediately obvious that the Brazzaville Airport Authority was conducting another of its time-consuming and annoying spot checks and body-searches; aimed at the fortuitous apprehension of anyone from the smuggler to the insurgent. I had been involved in several of these in the past so knew what to expect and was not unduly concerned. I carried no weapons and my passport and papers were in better order than they had ever been - my sponsors, for the supposed four-day visit, being the highly esteemed Bank of China. The sponsorship forms proclaimed that I was their Middle East Investment Coordinator.
Some of the more voluble passengers were already protesting and arguing as the uniformed immigrations, customs and security people, some two dozen of them, men and women, moved amongst us, randomly selecting victims for the body searches. I looked around for a seat. I was in no desperate rush and the people waiting for me would do just that; wait.
In the event, I did not need the chair. I was among the first batch to be chosen. Which suited me fine. And I was as relaxed and at ease as was possible after a long night flight as I was directed to a door marked “Visas” by a young Congolese officer with a pock-marked face, and shown politely inside. I even thanked the man for opening the door for me.
I knew something was wrong the instant the door closed behind me. Inside were not the uniformed officials I was expecting, but three white men in civilian clothes. One of them, a thin man in a grey suit, stepped forward as one of the others, a big bull of a man in an engineer’s coverall, stepped behind me and locked the door.
“Robert McCann?” said the thin man. His tone rose to the question, but it was not a question.
My pulse rate doubled on the spot and it was a struggle to remain outwardly calm. “Yes,” I said. There seemed little point in denying the name printed in the passport I held in my hand.
The third man opened another door, one that led to the outside, through which I could see a car pulled up on the pan close to the building, its rear door open. This, suddenly, was a classic security force scenario; the dawn swoop. Then I stopped analyzing the situation as the thin man withdrew his right hand from his pocket, displaying a small automatic. “You will climb into the car, sir,” he said. “Do not attempt anything foolish - however melodramatic that may sound to you. It would achieve nothing but heartache.”
I hesitated, my mind racing again. These people were not attached to the Congolese security force. They could not be. That organization, to my certain knowledge, had purged itself of all expatriate “advisors” as long ago as the early seventies; when Congo became Zaire. But it was equally as certain that whoever they were - and the thin man had an English accent - they had to be acting with local sanction.
I said, “You went to all this trouble just for me?” It was a temporizer, and not a very original one at that.
The thin man ignored it. “The car. Now!”
I felt a none-too-gentle shove from behind. But I held my ground in an attempt to gain some thinking time. “You’re probably making a mistake. I’m here for - “
The thin man cut in. “There’s no mistake. Now, are you going to move? Or must we use force?” He shrugged minutely then, and a smile as thin as his face tugged half-heartedly at his mouth. “Your life is in no immediate danger, sir. If you’ll just do as you’re told. But do it now!” The gun came up menacingly.
It did not require a man with two brains to realize the odds. I raised my hands in a gesture of not-so-mock surrender. “Okay. But you’ve got a wire crossed somewhere.”
I was bundled out of the building and into the car, sandwiched between the two heavyweights. The thin man slipped into the front passenger seat and twisted around, the gun aimed loosely at my crotch. I said nothing but thought hard as the car sped over the pan in the direction of the new administration building.
“My name is Brown,” said the man behind the desk. He had eyes that reminded me of steel ball bearings and skin that might have been painted on his skull. He was casually flicking through a file in front of him. “And yours is McCann. Robert McCann.” He stopped at a particular page and scanned it briefly. “Born, Garde Valley, Oklahoma.”
I said, “That’s Garve.”
Brown looked at me. “Pardon,” he frowned.
“It’s Garve. With a V.”
He grunted something and made an alteration with what looked to be a gold Parker pencil. I knew what I was receiving. I was receiving the show-them-what-a-disadvantage-they’re-at treatment. Along with the good-guy bad-guy police interrogation method, it was one of the classics. I did not know what it was all about, but I thought the treatment was good news. It meant that they - whoever they were - were not on as solid a ground as they may have liked.
“Garve Valley, Oklahoma,” Brown went on. “June ninth, ‘forty-five...Normal high school education...Excelled in sports.”
I said, “What is it you want, Brown?” My pulse was back to normal now. In fact, I almost did feel relaxed. Strangely, I had an idea I was back amongst my own kind.
Brown ignored the interruption, and continued to read from the file. “Both parents killed in road accident, August third, ‘fifty-two...Only brother killed on active service, Korean theatre, June second, fifty-three...” His eyes flicked over a few paragraphs. “...Subject submitted false personal details, i.e., date of birth, to selection board and gained illegal entry to military service. Marine corps.” He sat back in his chair, taking the file with him.
The two other men in the room might not have been there. I sighed a deep sigh of boredom, but Brown didn’t catch it. He went on, “Service...Let’s see...Malaya; service with distinction. Purple Heart, Congressional Medal of Honor.” At this point he glanced over at me and shook his head as if it were all too much for him.
I said, “I could really use a smoke.”
Again, I was ignored. “Central America...Service with distinction...Amazing.” I tried to get a look at the file heading, but at that distance, and upside down, I didn’t stand a chance, but I was glad that my stomach had stopped churning. I glanced at the other men. Both seemed more interested in the walls. “Then Viet Nam,” continued Brown. “Involved in the Xuan Loc breakout...subsequent trek through hostile territory...promoted major.” One of his eyebrows did a dance. “Major,” he repeated thoughtfully. It was all an act. I wondered if he knew it was so obvious. “Captured in Mekong Delta...escaped...recaptured...escaped again.” This time he looked me full in the face. “You are a resourceful man, colonel.”
I said, “I’m a puzzled one.”
He hmm’d softly and returned to the damned file. “Ah! Promoted colonel, September seventh, sixty-nine.” Then, “Ah-ha! Attacks four star general Andrew Macquarter.”
I suddenly saw that bastard’s face clearly in my mind, as I do whenever someone mentions generals. He had ordered me to send my company off to fight some useless rearguard action, east of Saigon, while the rest of us “advisors” hightailed it out of that city as fast as the choppers could come get us. It was the start of the biggest double-cross in history. I had told him what he could do with his orders, then, as an afterthought more than anything else, I’d belted him. No, I had belted him because he couldn’t understand my refusal to obey. He simply couldn’t understand it! He had thought it a perfectly reasonable request: “under the circumstances.” He had ended up with a broken jaw and I had ended up under loose house arrest pending a court martial.
“From which,” Brown was saying, “he subsequently absconded...Stole military vehicles and, as far as can be ascertained, transported his former command overland to Kampuchea.”
Kampuchea had been my first paymaster as a mercenary. I had not chosen the business. It had chosen me.
Brown was smiling now. At least his mouth seemed to be. “Subject is known to have operated as a mercenary soldier in Kampuchea, then Mozambique in ‘77...For the Libyans in ‘78-’79. Then Angola...” He placed the file on the desk with exaggerated care. “And so on, and so forth”
For several seconds no-one said anything.
Then Brown went on, “An impressive record, colonel. It is a pity that you had to spoil it.”
“For whom?” I said, adding, “May I smoke?”
I was certain now that my arrest was not strictly legal, not yet anyway. And despite the file-flourishes, it had not been instigated by the local authorities. These men were British Intelligence; S.I.S. - a dunce would have guessed it. None of which, however, altered the fact that local blessing must have been sought and granted. Brown said, “All in good time.”
I said, “Now’s a good time,” and I took out my packet, shook out a cigarette and lit up. Brown glanced up at the sign on the wall that informed the world that smoking was illegal anywhere inside the terminal building. I felt certain he would react. But he didn’t. He leant forward over the desk and studied my face minutely. Then he went on, “You were hired in Crete. By a man called Chi Luang. A sometimes, and a highly questionable, employee of the Bank of China. Your brief is simple. You are to take command of a force of mercenary soldiers, at present camped, under the guise of migrant workers, near the Zaire border, on the estate of a...a certain...” He again glanced at the file. “A certain mister Wang Cha...Cha...” He flicked a glance at one of the men. “Charma, is that? Ian, your writing is abominable. What is this name?”
My mind was now a jumble of stray ends, and this charade of seemingly inconsequential sidetracks was not helping. The broad reason why I had been pulled in was obvious. The niceties were the puzzle. I looked at the man whose writing Brown thought was abominable, and then at the third member. These men were the thinkers, the planners, the white collar brigade. The three who had performed the heavy work; the thin man and the two “engineers”, had escorted me to the room then left. Here were three more, of whom Brown appeared the boss. How many more were there? Did it require a minimum of six men to haul in a single mercenary? And why Brown’s heavy emphasis on the continuous tense. He had said, “You are to take command” Or was I imagining that?
“Ian” was a tallish character. Definitely ex-something or other. He wore a suit that had experienced desk work and an expression that had seen some hard times. The other man, as yet unaddressed by name, might have been a wrestler. He had a walkie-talkie in his hand and kept looking up at a clock on the wall. The passage of time was definitely an element in this man’s thinking.
Brown nodded and made another pencil alteration in the file. “Shama,” he repeated. Then he came back to me. “In due course you are to lead this force over the border and into Zaire...”
There it was again. The heavy stress on the word are.
“...where you will locate an area know to locals and - “Another glance at me. “ - persons of your calling, as Camp-One. Kanyamifuta...”
“Mifupa, sir.” said Ian.
“It’s Kanyamifupa sir. Translates as - “
“I know what it translates as, Ian,” breathed Brown testily, “It’s written here. Damned theatrical, if you ask me. Place of bones, indeed! What a lot of nonsense!”
“Right,” I put in, “What a lot of nonsense.”
Brown shot me a look that wondered if I was taking the rise. Whatever his conclusion, he returned to the file. “Then -” To me now. “ - at a given signal from the Chinese, you were to have mobilized this force against president Aaron Motanga.” He closed the file with a snap. “Win or lose, the attempt itself would have been sufficient to allow the Chinese to jump to the aid of a government in some considerable confusion. Right, colonel?”
Then I had it, courtesy of his shift in emphasis. I did not attempt a bluff. It would have been useless. They knew the lot. I said, “All of which leads me to smell a counter proposal.”
Brown nodded and smiled happily and the file was pushed to one side. “Well, whatever else you may be, you’re a realist. I’ll grant you that. And you are correct. Instead of adhering to the Chinese schedule of times and targets, you will adhere to ours.”
Brown tossed that question away as if it were a piece of fluff. “Let me rephrase that. You will adhere to mine.”
“I see.” I said, relaxing back into the chair they had given me, certain now that I was amongst contemporaries. This was not the first time I had been asked to play a dual role. Though, to accept it, would definitely have been a first. The big difference here was who was doing the asking, and how. Western governments normally keep well clear of mercenary operations; which is not to say that they do not utilize them, direct them. They normally do it via a long and confusing chain of intermediaries - the thin end of which would be some poor expendable soul who barely realizes what he’s into. Even the Chinese trod the same path, though they tended to be less subtle about it. These men had not said who they were or who they were acting for, but they had denied nothing either. Nor had they bothered to hide their oh-so British accents. This was part of my new puzzle, but not all of it. There was some stray end that I had yet to put a name to. I could sense it, feel it in the atmosphere, as tangible now as the clock ticking its message on the wall. I said, “And what are these schedules, Mister Brown?”
He leant forward onto the desk, hands clasped together. “You will lead your men into the Isanga Valley, colonel, where Aaron Motanga’s personal guard will dispose of them, utterly and completely.”
I had heard it, but I could not believe it. “Pardon?”
Brown grunted. “You heard every word, colonel. And you understood well enough.”
This was incredible, staggering. “Dispose of them?”
Brown nodded. “Quite. And in full view, so to speak, of the Zaire population. You personally, of course, will have made your own arrangements.” He sat back in his seat now. He appeared smugly satisfied with something or other. “Your remuneration, payable the moment we have an agreement in principle, will be five hundred thousand pounds. Which figure does not take into account the sum you have already received from the Chinese. A small fortune, colonel, for only a small deviation from your original brief.”
It was several seconds before I could weigh it all up in my mind. “Are you saying that you are after total annihilation?” The words sounded ridiculous even as I was saying them.
Brown’s nod was stony this time. “I couldn’t have put it better myself. A half a million pounds, plus what you have already been paid. For delivering your command into the hands of president Motanga.”
“Sweet Jesus Christ,” I breathed. These people did not want prisoners; men to pack some show-trial courtroom. They wanted bodies. By the ton! “You want me to -” I began. Then I was filled with a throat constricting revulsion. Over the next few seconds this died away, to be replaced by anger. “You know what gets up my nose more than anything else,” I said icily.
Brown said nothing. He focused his eyes on a point midway between me and the wall behind me and just sat there.
I went on, “It’s that you think I’m your man.”
Brown spoke then. “Will you do it?”
My laugh was more a short bark of incredulity. “You’re giving me a choice?”
Brown and Ian exchanged glances. What that meant I did not know. “Well, mister bloody British intelligence,” I spat, “you can stuff your schedule of times and targets! And you can wipe your arse on the small fortune. I’m a mercenary soldier, not a goddamned mass murderer!”
Ian addressed himself to me personally for the first time. “Is there really that much difference, colonel?”
Had I obeyed my first instinct I would have dived at his throat. Was there a difference! Jesus! I felt stale. Did they really believe that all mercenaries were like that?
The third man’s W/T crackled into life then and the air of tension was frozen.
“Position one,” stuttered the handset.
The man lifted it to his head. “Yes, one?”
“About a third through,” said the metallic voice. “You’ve got about twenty minutes. Questions are being asked here, but as yet no-one’s getting desperate.”
“Okay. Keep us posted.” The man allowed the handset to fall to his lap, his eyes fixed firmly on Brown.
To me, Brown said, “Twenty minutes, colonel. That is as long we have to reach agreement. If you are not with the other passengers when they finally enter the main concourse, where your Chinese friends are waiting, then the cat, as they say, will be out of its bag. And the one and only way you get to leave this room, minus handcuffs and the promise of a million years behind bars is for us to be agreed in principal. If this proves impossible, then your arrest will become official by Congolese standards.”
I laughed again, but this also was not a laugh. “On what charges, for Christ’s sake!”
“Oh,” said Brown, pulling a concerned face, “Didn’t I tell you? You are a gun-runner, colonel.” He turned to Ian. “What is it he will be carrying, Ian?”
Ian said, “Two sub machine guns. A quantity of plastic explosive. Half a dozen hand grenades, and photographs of half the members of the National Assembly.”
My anger compressed itself into a small, hard knot somewhere in the pit of my stomach, as Brown swung his eyes back to me. “Tut tut, colonel,“ he said, shaking his head in pseudo admonishment. “Now that’s naughty. It’s also a capital offense here in the Congo.” His wry smile and raised eyebrows said: Check, I think!
I looked at him and he looked at me. I turned and looked at Ian, who looked away. And the man with the W/T was suddenly interested in the wallpaper. For several seconds I did not have a single positive thought in my head. I felt out-gunned and didn’t like it. In a sudden rush of something or other I dropped the cigarette onto the carpet and heeled it to death.
Brown’s steely gaze dropped to the floor for an instant. He might have smiled thinly, but it could also have been a grimace. He lifted a shoulder. “If it makes you feel any easier, colonel, we did not single you out for this assignment. Not in the way you imply. It is quite simply that you were the man the Chinese dragged in. Had they persuaded the Pope’s brother to work for them, it would be he sitting here now and not you.”
“Then get him,” I said dully; because that was how I felt; dull, edgeless and impotent.
“Who?” asked Brown seriously, missing my lame attempt at sarcasm.
“The Pope’s brother.”
His expression slid into one of exasperated patience. “Understand this, colonel. The Chinese cannot be allowed a foothold in Central Africa. Such an event would be tantamount to disaster for the west. And we are willing, nay, more than willing, to countenance any action, however distasteful, to prevent it.”
Dull I may have been, but I had Brown and his cronies pegged. I said, “West schmest! This has sod-all to do with your paranoid fear of a communist resurgence. This is dollars and cents, it always is with you cloak and dagger merchants. You’ve made a scratch-my-back deal with Motanga. Any third year student could tell you that unless he can get a vote-catcher come next year’s elections, he’s washed up. That same student will also tell you that of all the possible candidates for the Zaire hot-seat, Motanga is the white man’s best bet, your best bet! He’s the devil you already know. And what was the deal? Mining concessions? It usually is.” With the bit between my teeth now, as opposed to rammed down my gullet, I went on, “You don’t need me; not for this threat of yours. If that was your angle you could end it here and now. You profess to know so goddam much about the set-up. Okay - throw the spanner in now! Before anyone gets into Zaire!”
Brown rattled off a short parradiddle on the desk top with the fingers of his right hand. “You are wrong, colonel. We cannot move against your future command here in the Congo, much as we’d like to...and before you jump in with both feet, the we I use here includes several other interested parties I could, but will not, name. And we cannot do it, for the very simple reason that the Congolese administration refuses to admit to its presence within its borders.” He shrugged hugely. “Oh, they cooperated with us for the purposes of this little charade, certainly. But this is as far as they are prepared to venture. You see, they are in the proverbial cleft stick. The Bank of China - in parenthesis, of course - releases a very great deal of money into their economy. Cleverly-placed money. Crucial money. Life blood, so to speak.” He smiled a taut smile. “It’s the old Nelson syndrome, colonel - the convenient blind eye. We all suffer from it now and again. All of which means that eventually, whether you are in command, or someone else is, that small army of mercenaries will find its dangerous way into Zaire. Perhaps not to this - this Camp-One - because I am told that very few of you people know the key to its exact whereabouts - but into the country certainly. And, as a man well schooled in the art of jungle fighting, you will know that no normal ambush, and certainly no normal action, can hope to be one hundred percent successful. A percentage, greater or smaller, will survive to regroup, to fight again. What we, the west - sneer if you like...”
I had sneered.
“...what we need is an eradication of the Chinese threat, once and for all time. You are sitting there simply because conditions, at this precise moment in time, are ripe for it.” He hunched a shoulder. “The fact that we also stand to gain certain...yes, certain mining concessions from it, is neither here nor there, believe it or not. A certain icing on the cake. A deal has been made, yes. But it is secondary to the real issue.”
I sneered again. “Like hell it is! What - ” Then I suddenly had another thought. “Incidentally,” I changed tack, “What’s to stop me agreeing to what you ask, then disappearing into the wild, blue yonder? Better yet, what’s to stop me doing a triple, with the Chinese? The minute I leave this - “
“Your daughter,” Brown cut in smoothly, stifling a sigh, “Karen, I think her name is. Currently studying to be a nurse at the Saint Joan Nursing College in Johannesburg. A lovely young thing, so I’m led to believe. And very promising; as a student nurse, that is.”
Rarely have I experienced moments like that; once when I was watching a horror movie as a kid; again in Vietnam when the slants decapitated a very close friend right alongside me; again in Angola when I saw the remains of a man who had been crucified then systematically skinned alive. And then, when Karen’s name appeared on the lips of that man. The sap, almost as a physical thing, drained out of my upper body and seemed to bloat my legs. I managed to croak, “What has Karen got to do with any of this?” But I really did not want to know.
Part of my shock was that hardly anyone knew I even had a daughter, let alone what her name was and what she was doing, and where. A few close friends was all - I thought!
Brown sucked in a long breath, his expression nondescript. “At present? Nothing. I hope it suffices to say that we know she exists.”
“Meaning what?” I demanded shakily.
Brown met my glare. “As I say, hopefully absolutely nothing.” But his eyes told a very different story. I was later to wonder why it was I hadn’t felt the urge to jump for his throat, as I had when Ian rammed a personal barb into me. Any other father would have done that, I’m certain. Why didn’t I? I just felt numb.
“You’ll have to go the whole hog, Brown,” I said at last. “You’ll have to tell me what will happen to Karen if I don’t play along.”
They told me.
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