The Devil’s Breath

 

1: The Price

 

Sometimes being careful doesn’t mean shit. You cocoon in your safe space while the bullets are flying and you wait for them to stop coming. Then you risk a few shots of your own. That’s being careful. Far from foolproof, of course, but when you’re outnumbered and outgunned it’s the best you can do. What you can do absolutely fuck all about is the ricochet of a bullet that wasn’t even aimed at you personally. That’s down to luck and luck alone. Providence. And Sapper Morris’s luck had run out.

He was still breathing, still forcing a smile. Still – on the surface anyway - the affable comic who had kept us amused for the best part of a month. But he was already a dead man and he knew it. And he was dead because this enemy did not take prisoners.

Bish Leveque, his grimy hand shielding Sapper’s eyes from the white-hot glare of the sun, also knew the score. But knowing something, and knowing what to do about it, are two different things.

Leveque shot a glance over at the ruins on the other side of the debris-littered street, where the opposition were pumping themselves up for another attack. He looked back despairingly at Sapper, and shot me an agonized frown that said it all. A retreat was the only way to fly, and Sapper Morris wasn’t going anywhere. Not in a hurry. Not even at a snail’s pace. From a running battle with better than an outside chance of success, to a complete and utter fucking disaster. In an eye-blink.

The mangled 9.mm round should have killed Sapper outright. That would have been a blessing. Short of that outcome it had done the worst it could do. It had shredded his spine, low down in the small of his back, carried on through and ripped out his stomach. The front of his battle dress was a distended mess of something I didn’t even want to think about. But you can carry a man with even the worst of stomach wounds. You can’t carry a man with no spine. Certainly not without a stretcher. We had no stretchers, and the bastards over the road were not about give us time to improvise one.

“Sorry, skipper,” Sapper grunted though his pain.

I groaned. He was apologizing for dying! He should have been apologizing for being so damned popular. Because that seemingly insignificant fact was the root of my new problem.

“What a fucking bastard!” he hissed, through gritted teeth. “So fucking close!”

I shook my head. It was a worthless observation anyway. I said, “Shut the fuck up, for Christ’s sake. I’m thinking!”  But I wasn’t thinking. I was observing.  My thought processes, having tumbled the dominoes, seemed to have hit a brick wall.

Sapper dragged a smile up from somewhere. “You can still make it, skipper,” he grated, “Ten klicks…no more than that!”

A thin trickle of blood; the dark, fatal kind, seeped from the corner of his mouth. A hundred war-ravaged years ago the dirt beneath him was someone’s garden patch. Now it was a bloody quagmire of Sapper’s own making, the viscous pool widening by the second. He tried to cough, but didn’t seem able to. He just gurgled. And he was trembling - not because of the pain of his wound. Well, not entirely, I was certain of that. He was trembling because he knew he was finished, and he was scared shitless. Hell, who wouldn’t be? No-one wants to die. Whatever face you put on it, however much you think you’ve prepared for it, however fucking “brave” you are, or think you are, dying is the end of everything. The ultimate truth. Probably the only truth on the face of this suffering planet.

I wondered if there was a small miracle wandering around close by looking for a home. We needed one. I needed one. And I needed it now.

Leveque, glancing back out at the killing ground, warned, “Ten, fifteen minutes!”

I ignored Sapper’s probing stare, because I knew what he was tacitly saying, and I followed Leveque’s glance. I wondered what he could see that I couldn’t. He was guessing, of course. But based on previous skirmishes, it was probably a good guess. Their last attack had failed and they had disappeared into cover, but the cost to us had been significant.  I had seen two of our Askaris go down; one of them – Apio Budda, I think – with his face blown apart.  The other, whose name I can’t remember, fell as we were pulling back to this side of the street. Clemente Garcia, the only other European short of Sapper, Leveque and myself, caught an RPG round full in the chest. He was out there somewhere in bits. Garcia was someone else who had the makings of being around forever. You’d have thought!

I guessed we were left with a dozen guns. Against at least sixty. And those people were well led; organized and motivated. Our guys were scattered throughout the ruins this side of the street I knew not where. Their motivation was lying in the dirt with half a spine and a tunic full of stomach.

But, whatever happened now, I had to pull something out of the fire. And quickly. It was my job. Morale should have been my job, too. If anyone was bloody stupid, it was me! I had allowed Sapper to assume the role of Morale Officer and all-round role model without either of us being aware of it. That account was about to be paid one way or the other.

A voice drifted thinly over the debris-littered street. High-pitched and urgent. That would be their Mullah again, urging them to new efforts.  I was beginning to hate that man and I had never as much as clapped eyes on him. He would be promising virgins by the truckload to last them through all eternity, in exchange for one final push. And that was the rub. They believed it. They wanted to die fighting their cause! It was what they did. What they were all about. So they howled their Allah hu-Akbars in chorused response. Let me die fighting the unbeliever! And they were dying!  The street between us and the ruined adobe houses opposite, into which they had eventually dived for cover, was littered with their dead. But the sheer weight of numbers had always been on their side. Still was.

And I had been within a spit of ordering yet another tactical withdrawal to more defensible ground when that single ricochet had changed everything.

I looked down at him. “For Christ’s sake, Sapper!” But I did not have the first clue what I meant by that. Maybe I was demanding how a man of his experience could have allowed this to happen.

He nodded, his teeth gritted against what could only be a flaming agony. “Yep…” he said in a hoarse whisper. Something vaguely like a chuckle squeezed from his bloody lips. “Trust me to screw it all up!” His voice rasped like a cinder under a door, and I could have cried for him. I could have cried for all of us.

Leveque, his eyes everywhere, taking it all in, looking for his own miracle, hissed, “Comme cest vrai, mon fils” Aint that the truth, my son! He only reverted to his own language when he was under pressure. He could join the club.

Sapper looked up at him and there was that hard-won smile again. Inconsequentially, I wondered where his heavy tan had gone. Then I looked at the bloody bulge of his battle dress and I stopped wondering. Sapper was already dead.

Which was not the worst of it.

If only these guys contented themselves with shooting inconvenient wounded out of hand. That would not have presented half the dilemma. Such was commonplace in mercenary warfare. Un-noteworthy. More pertinently in this case, even merciful. But the Kangatzi were anything but merciful. Theirs would be a martyr’s death, leading to eternal glory with a permanent hard-on. The last thing they wanted was to afford their enemy the same privileges. So the first thing they removed from the guys unfortunate enough to get left behind alive was the object of their manhood. Then the feet and hands. A quick slice, and four practiced blows with a machete. If they had time, the eyes would be next. And the nose and the ears. Tongue, even. They were not fussy. Just so long as their victim eventually reached his Valhalla as an incomplete item, unable to enjoy the pleasures they themselves were promised; were dying for.

And even then it wasn’t over.

If the victim had not already died from the sheer trauma of it all, he would be left as he lay, in a kind of agony that none of us currently alive can even begin to imagine. Eventually, of course, he must die. If only from the blood loss. But in some cases the merciful release of death could be a long time coming.

Sapper had already put the numbers together in the correct order, with most of the possible outcomes noted in the mental margin. I was sure of that. He was an experienced soldier with more than his fair share of combat experience under his belt. He also knew what mercenary warfare was all about. And he certainly knew what the Kangatzi were all about. But I wondered if he knew the way things really were. In fact I doubted that. Did he know that our Askaris – down at core level - were actually following him, not me! That epiphany struck me the moment he fell.

So I was smitten with indecision. Not indecision about his death, because he was already a dead man. In question was the manner of his death. Whose finger would actually pull the trigger? And there was the time-scale. And the effect.

Because in barely more time than it takes to boil a kettle they would be on us again. And there was no way on God's suffering earth we could hold them. Not as we were. Not this time. Not again.

And I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t.

Leveque ducked instinctively as a burst of .50mm machine gun fire tore into the ruins opposite. Bits of brick and mortar flew everywhere. The fire had come from somewhere on our right flank. The shooter had to be Ras Amadi. He had our one remaining 50 calibre weapon. I wondered what he was shooting at.

Leveque yelled, “Save it, Amadi!”

Amadi’s voice, muffled by distance and the ruins, called a reply in his own language. I couldn’t make it out. Neither, apparently, could Leveque. But Sapper, who spoke fluent Arabic, had it pegged.  He actually smiled and grunted another wet, bloody chuckle. “Good on yer, sport!” he hissed through his pain.

“What?” queried Leveque, his dirt-streaked face creased in a new frown.

Sapper shook his head slightly, then clamped his eyes tightly as another spasm ripped through him, his face contorting with agony. Through it all, he hissed, “Private joke.”

And that was the thing about Sapper Morris.

He had already apologized for dying; from an accident that possessed no personal malice. Now, on the extreme edge of oblivion, he was sharing a joke with his men. But it was a joke that should have been mine; the men should have been mine. Not his.

“Sapper” was a nickname. Everyone had a nickname. Well, all except me, apparently. The Askaris called me Captain Palmer, but with their limited command of the English language it came out as a single Cap'almer. Which was close enough. And good enough. Sapper variously called me Skipper or Boss, even Mein Fuhrer at times. His real name was Alan. He had served with a regiment of engineers back in the day. Hence the “Sapper”.

 Anton Leveque was “Bish” for the simple and uncomplicated reason that, in France, a Leveque is a Bishop. The religious kind. The nickname was a Sapper original. Sapper had started calling him Bish, and the name had stuck. None of us, not even Leveque himself, knew the roots of it. Certainly not at first. Leveque knew what his name meant in his own language, of course, but he didn't have a clue what the slang English equivalent was, let alone how it might be shortened.

Clemente Garcia, the guy whose constituent parts currently decorated the ruins on the other side of town, was called Digger. Nothing to do with Australia. It was because of the song. Forty-niner. I’ll not bother with explanation, because it’s all null and void now.

Sapper opened his eyes and seemed to relax as the spasm passed. He stared at me. His eyes took on a new expression and he seemed momentarily free of pain. “Now, skipper!” he said with finality. Then he added, “If you don't mind.” His gaze dropped to the M16 in my hand, then he closed his eyes.

So he didn’t know. He would not be going down that road if he did.

I looked at him. But I still couldn’t pull it together. Any kind of coherent thought seemed a million miles away. I was watching a movie; waiting for the story to unfold. I did know that if things had fallen differently and the man with his guts filling his battledress was Garcia, I wouldn’t have hesitated for an instant, and none of the guys would have batted so much as an eyelid. It certainly would not have been the first coup de grace I had administered. But this was Sapper. And there was still a fight to be won. And with the odds stacked the way they were, the deciding factor was always motivation. Morale. How could I rob my rapidly diminishing command of that? It was the only thing that had kept us alive since the whole debacle had begun.

On the edge of my vision I saw Leveque shake his head in a lost sort of way. He hesitated briefly, then he took back the hand that had been shielding Sapper’s eyes from the sun. I guess he’d figured it out. Over to you! He raised his weapon and rested it on the ruined wall in front of him, aiming loosely in the general direction of the sermon. A sermon which would soon be an attack.

I knew that it was down to me. But that’s all I knew. I guess this was one impossible decision too many. My M16 was aimed at Sapper’s head, but my finger was hesitating on the trigger.

The Mullah was almost screaming his message now, and the Allah hu-Akbars were at fever pitch, the echoes bouncing back off the steep, barren hills that surrounded that forsaken ghost town. Without turning, Leveque breathed a resigned, “Whatever you're going to do...”

And he left it at that.

 

*

 

I didn’t have a name for what I had done. Some hailed it as justifiable homicide. Others called it murder. Taken at its face value, and sitting behind a comfortable desk in a far-off country several months after the event, it could indeed be seen as murder. I was not so naïve that I didn’t appreciate that. But it was one of those things where you had to have been there.

In simple terms, I had shot a man in the back. And I am not talking about Sapper here. This was long before I even knew Sapper existed.

And this guy was not just any man; Joshua Mtomo was the prime minister – if only by default - of the eastern territories of Bazingue. He was not even the enemy. In fact, he was the man who paid my wages. And he wore the uniform of a brigadier-general. I had played a major part in his rise to power. And I had been well paid for my trouble. My kind of work does not come cheap.

I had shot him in the back without provocation.

Those are the simple terms.

I could not even begin to explain the complex terms. So I never bothered to try. Certainly not to myself. Which was an error, because if I had I might have seen the next bit coming.

They say there’s no fool like an old fool, and they – whoever the fuck “they” are – are right; eventually it all caught up with me in Dubai. Specifically, in the rooftop bar of the Al Jazeera Hotel. Perhaps I should also have remembered that when things seem perfect, that’s when you should most be on your guard. There’s probably some kind of a cheap clichéd quip to cover that too.

 And things seemed perfect.

Jose “Pancho” Santana, looking every inch the tourist in the casuals he had bought in the lobby boutique, emptied his glass and smacked his lips noisily. “Bloody hell, Marty” he breathed contentedly, settling himself back in the expansive recliner, “If this aint the life, then I don’t know what is.”

Santana was a Mexican/American, and - certainly in a working environment - he liked to think he was an incarnate Pancho Villa. He wore a moustache like Villa’s and would carry holstered handguns on each hip, slung as low as the belt would allow. Except that his handguns of choice were Peacemaker Colts, not six-shooters. And he would carry his ammunition in bandoleers crisscrossed over his chest. Back when B-Company existed, the roots of his nickname carried more than a small measure of sarcasm. He knew it, and he didn’t seem to give a damn. I suspect he even liked it.

But where Pancho Villa was purported to be a big man, Santana was small and wiry. He was a hurry-man, full of nervous energy. If he was ever forced to sit in one place, some part of his body would be constantly on the move. Either a foot would tap, or fingers would drum, or he'd be shifting in his seat like a man with hemorrhoids. Sometimes it would all happen at once. I don't think he suffered from hemorrhoids. Tactical briefings were a nightmare. Ten minutes in the same room with Jose Santana and you could yourself end up a nervous wreck.

What he lacked in stature he made up for in ferocity. He would undertake any seemingly impossible task, and he would do so gratefully. In any kind of a fire fight he was a crazy man who had already lived longer than his nature should have allowed.

Off duty, however – and this was the first time I had ever been in that kind of an environment with him – he seemed a different man. Easy-going company.

I nodded. I wasn’t plastered, but I was on the road to that comfortable place.

Sixty floors below the huge, triple-glazed windows of the penthouse bar, night time Dubai stretched away into the distance, a fairyland of twinkling lights and things that weren’t dangerous, the panorama broken only by the snaking black line of the invisible Dubai Creek. The plush bar was cool, sparsely if elegantly lit and smelt vaguely of new leather. A piano trio was playing softly in a corner. The sound mingling with the even softer mumble of conversation and the background hum of the state-of-the-art air conditioning. I was wearing a lightweight safari suit that hadn’t seen the light of day for eons, and, for once, I felt comfortable to be out of uniform. That didn’t happen very often. In fact, I hadn’t been out of some kind of uniform for several years. And I hadn’t wanted to be. They –  them again! - maintain that you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone. They’re definitely right about that.

As a description, perfect actually fell some way short of covering it.

And we had 72 hours to kill.

I had a feeling that this low, ornately-carved table, in an alcove window of the bar, ringed as it was by the huge reclining chairs, each big enough to accommodate an orgy, might be where we would spend the entire stopover. A pleasant thought.

Santana said, “The silly sod’s gonna be pig-sick!”

He was talking about Sweeney Graham. Graham, nicknamed Sweeney because of his close-quarters skill with a blade, had opted to hitch a ride to Sri Lanka on a military flight. Direct. I guess he had his own reasons for not waiting.

I said, “He’s probably saying the same about us. “

Santana waved his empty glass at a passing waiter and held up two fingers. “No bloody way! He just didn’t think it through.”

I grunted. “Like we did?”

They had given us business-class tickets. Open-ended. Final destination Sri Lanka, where Spiro Murdock would arrange to get us on to Libya, where the job was. All we had to do was get to Djibouti airport in time for the flight. If Santana and I hadn’t buggered about in Mosambique we would have made it. I texted Sweeney to tell him we’d be late but had no response. Santana tried calling him a couple of times, but all he got for his pains was the not-available message. It was fairly typical of Sweeney that he’d either let his phone run out of credit, or had forgotten to put it on charge. Either way, when we eventually arrived in Djibouti there was a message waiting for us at the Daalo Airways flight desk telling us that he’d gone on. We eventually took the Dubai Business-class stopover flight. Seventy-two hours in civilization sounded like a bloody fine scheme. Especially since the tickets also took care of the hotel accommodation. Business people live in a world of their own. And bloody good luck to them.

Santana lifted a shoulder and smiled a contented smile. “Whatever…”

It was one of those rare moments when I wondered why I didn’t simply rejoin the world. This world. The one that smelled of expensive leather upholstery and furniture polish, not of raw sewage, gun oil and blood. The world that just sat there being the world until you told it to be something else. But life is never that simple, is it?

I’ll tell you what’s simple: death is simple.

The waiter delivered the drinks. He was Asian, and his smile was anything but a smile. He had beads of sweat on his forehead and half-moons of grime under his fingernails. I smelt the stale sweat of his armpits as he leant over my right shoulder to do his thing. I had smelt like that myself, sometimes far worse. I realized that the nice thoughts were just so much booze-induced crap. The world only seems benign when you’re sixty floors above it. Drop below the fairy lights and rub shoulders with the common man, and the ambiance resorts to form. Here, and especially in Dubai, you could smell the greed and the ambition that kept people like Graham, Santana and myself in well-paid work. And there is little intrinsic difference between a waiter and a sheikh. Or a traveling salesman and a mercenary soldier. Everyone has an angle; all working towards their own end. And that end is always money.

Unexpectedly sober again, and one thought leading to another, I said, “Let’s talk a little shop.” Prolonged relaxation was evidently not one of my strong points. That conclusion wasn’t a revelation; it was a recap.

Santana, rattling the ice in his fresh drink like a maraca, pulled a disbelieving face. “Oh, for chrissakes, Marty!”

I guess, right there, was why Santana was content to be an Indian and I was content to be whatever the hell it was I called myself at the time. I ignored the grumble. “Let’s start with the numbers.”

“Ah!” said Santana, a faint smile pulling at his mouth. He sucked some errant whisky from one wing of his moustache. “Always a good place to start. I fancy something up in the quarter mil region.”

He would, wouldn’t he! I said, “A week’s work, Pan. A simple mop-up job. We probably won’t even get to fire a gun. Let’s get real here.”

He treated me to an old fashioned look. “When was the last time a week’s work actually ended up a week’s work? And this is Libya we’re talking about. Plus a load of rag heads who don’t know one end of a gun from the other. It’ll take us that long just to get them to point the damned things, never mind pull the fucking trigger!”

He did have a point. “Fair enough,” I admitted, “But we’ll make that option a clause. Let’s start at a basic seventy grand plus expenses.”

Santana pursed his lips as if he was thinking about it. He glanced at me under his thick, jet-black eyebrows. “I was thinking more in the region of a ton.”

I smiled. “You were thinking more in the region of a quarter mil, you greedy bastard! I said, let’s get real. They’ll be thinking fifty.”

He shrugged and took a slurp at his drink. “If that’s what you reckon, boss. You know best.” Committee meeting over. He closed his eyes and eased himself deeper into the recliner, his glass held loosely on his chest.

I looked out the window just as a shooting star scratched a bright line though the sky. I wondered how many people would take that as some kind of an omen. I don’t believe in omens, if I believe in anything at all. What it was, was a chunk of metal hitting our atmosphere at a rate of knots, burning up in the process. Omens are for people who don’t want to work it out for themselves. Or who can’t.

I felt a presence at my shoulder and glanced up, expecting to see the waiter back again. It wasn’t the waiter. It was a tall guy in a pin-striped, double-breasted suit. He was definitely overdressed for these parts. I waited for him to go away, but he didn’t go away. He just stood there smiling down at me. I offered, “Can I help you?”

“Mister Palmer?” He had an American accent. Cultured mid-west. Soft and even toned. And I had never seen him before in my life. I wondered how he knew my name. But there were no alarm bells ringing in my head. He could be the hotel manager, or someone to do with the airline.

I said, “That’s me.”

I felt rather than saw Santana push himself upright in his seat, the ice in his drink tinkling like a Tibetan prayer chime.

The man shot Santana a glance then came back to me. “I wonder if I might have a private word.”

Santana chuckled. “Confidential’s a private word. You can have that one, if you like.”

We exchanged grins like a couple of school kids.

The stranger did not seem amused. He tried a smile on us but it didn’t come off.

I took pity on him. “Whatever you have to say, you can just come out and say it. We’re all friends here.”

He was not finding it easy to hold the smile. Despite that it wasn’t one. He shot another glance at Santana, then came back to me. “Perhaps I should call you Captain Palmer. Would that make a difference?”

It did. And I wondered who the hell this man was. I said, “You were right first time, it’s Mister Palmer.”

He sighed a small sigh. “Really? And how do you make that out? You were a captain when decided to abscond from the 75th Ranger Regiment operating out of Kosovo, and, thus far, you have not been discharged of that duty, either honorably, or  - “ He smiled a crooked smile – “or otherwise.” Then he lifted a shrug. “An arguable point, perhaps. But a fact nevertheless. However,” he went on, his expression hardening. “I’d really much rather this conversation was between you and me.”

Santana, who knew very little about my past life, seemed to be enjoying it hugely. He said, “Don’t worry about me, sonny, I’m a gatepost.”

The man kept his eyes on me. The smile, or his excuse for one, vanished. He seemed to be weighing things up in his mind. But no more than they were in my own. What the hell was this all about?  I said nothing, because my brain was too wooly to connect the salient thoughts into a meaningful response. At length the man shrugged, but it was a facial shrug. A be-it-on-your-own-head kind of twist.

“As you wish.” He stepped around the table and sat himself in one of the spare seats, his back to the magnificent view. “My name is Paxton.” He pulled a face that could have been mistaken for an apology. “And it’s Colonel Paxton.”

I said, “Bully for you…Colonel.”

Whatever this was, it wasn’t likely to be good. And I wished I hadn’t had so much to drink. I wasn’t feeling exactly on top of my game. And when a stranger demonstrates an advantage you need a clear head.

Santana, his tone dripping undisguised sarcasm, breathed, “Wow…a real colonel!”

I was proud of him.

The man ignored him. “Just so you’re aware of your options, Captain, I want you to glance over your right shoulder.” He smiled and added, “If you would be so kind.”

I didn’t. I kept my eyes on the man. But on the edge of my vision, I saw that Santana did. He said, “Three guys, Marty. Heavies, by the cut of their jib. Over by the door. They weren’t there before.”

The man chuckled and deigned to swing his eyes on Santana. “I’m sure they would be scandalized to hear you call them that…Mister?” His tone rose to the question.

Santana placed his glass on the table with exaggerated care, while treating his moustache to another cleaning job. “Fuckface’ll do.”

I had to smile.

To his credit the man didn’t seem phased. “Well, Mister Fuckface, I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself. This doesn’t concern you.” And he added a slightly menacing, “But it could…so very easily!”

I said, “Can we get to the point?” Over his shoulder, I glanced at the window, trying to sort out the reflections of the bar behind me from the swathe of lights beyond. But it was impossible. The bar wasn’t that well lit and there were too many shadowed areas.

The man casually unbuttoned his jacket and deliberately lifted it away from his side an inch or two, so we could see the shoulder holster. He murmured, “This is in no way a threat, Captain. I just need to be sure we understand each other.”

Of course, if it wasn’t a threat he wouldn’t have showed it to us. I said, “It’s illegal to carry arms in this country. Or hadn’t you heard.” It was a temporizer, nothing more. And not a desperately clever one at that.

He said, “Well, Captain, if anyone should know about illegality, it’s yourself.”

“The point,” I reminded him, not unkindly.

He rebuttoned his jacket and made sure it was sitting right on his frame. “All in good time.”

Santana leaned forward over the table. After flashing a glance back at the bar area, he said, “Now’s a good time…Colonel!”

The man opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a faint sound of orchestral music. I glanced around at the trio, expecting to find them augmented by a string section. But they were still a trio. The stranger reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a mobile phone that was flashing, and playing a fugue. He seemed annoyed as he flipped the lid open. He held up a just a minute hand, murmured a polite, “Excuse me,” and placed the phone to his ear.

Santana frowned over at me and mouthed a silent, “What the fuck?”

I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer for him.

The man listened for a moment, still appearing annoyed. He shot a puzzled glance back into the bar, at one of the men, I guessed, then shifted his gaze to Santana. He seemed impressed by something he was hearing. “Sort it!” he said briefly. He flipped the phone closed and returned it to his pocket, his eyes still on Santana. He said, “Now there’s a thing.”

I said, “What’s a thing?”

To Santana, he said, “It seems you may just have written yourself into the script after all, Mister…ah, Fuckface? was it?” His smile was ironic.

Santana said nothing. Neither did I.

I was concerned, but not desperately so. Paxton’s reference to my military history was essentially correct; I was actually AWOL, and had been for over twenty years. But in most official records I was aware of I had been designated M.I.A. – Missing In Action. I was certainly in action when I went missing. So he was probably embellishing the facts on that point. And I was indeed a captain when that had gone down. I still utilized that rank now, because it was convenient to do so. No, scratch that; I held on to the rank because it paid more.

And I was not illegal in Dubai. Neither was I wanted for anything. Here, or anywhere else in the Gulf area, for that matter. There were some countries in the world where I was illegal. Radically so, in some cases. But not here. I didn’t know about Santana, because I’d never probed that deeply into his past. Besides, he wasn’t the prime target here. At least he hadn’t been before the phone call which, it seemed to me, was from one of the guys by the door. Which had to be a clue to something or other.

I glanced back over my shoulder.

You couldn’t miss them. They weren’t drinking. They were just standing there. They could have been clones of Paxton. Big and beefy. And overdressed. It would not have surprised me to learn that they had been en route to London, or some other cold city, until someone had diverted them here. One of them nodded, smiled broadly, and raised a hello hand.

I turned back to Paxton, who raised his eyebrows at me in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “Get the picture?”

I didn’t know. It was a poser, certainly. But it was a poser with a worrying side to it. If Paxton really was a serving officer, then he wasn’t serving with the colors. He would have to be in the Intelligence branch of the service. S.I.S., maybe. Black Ops. These people roamed pretty freely throughout the world, frequently with local sanction. I’m a fighting man, not a cloak and dagger merchant. And I was realist enough to know that I could be out of my depth. Caution was needed.

On impulse, I said, “Is that your own weapon? Or did you borrow it?” I was not expecting an answer. Certainly not a truthful one.

But Paxton knew exactly where my mind was. He pulled an impressed face and patted the slight bulge of the shoulder holster. “Very good, captain,” he nodded. “But this is my very own Colt. Bought in Fremont, Nebraska.” He pulled a thoughtful face. “Cost me something like seven hundred dollars and change, as I recall.” He smiled. “Does that answer your question?”

I felt like saying, well, you could be lying. But I didn’t. Because I didn’t think he was. I said, “Okay, so you’ve got the local constabulary at your elbow. Where does that leave us? And what the hell is this all about?”

He paused for a moment, as if making up his mind about something else. Then he performed a quick parradiddle on the tabletop with both hands, all business-like, as if he was now mentally where he wanted to be.

“Okay,” he began. “Remembering that the only armed people in this room, and possibly in the entire building, work under my command, I’m here to inform you, Captain Martin Palmer, that you are under arrest. You do not….” And he went on to read me my rights as directed by American law.

I was staggered. It was unbelievable. Crazy.

“…and if you cannot afford an attorney,” he concluded, “one will be appointed for you. Do you understand all that?”

Santana had sat back in his seat. He was wide-eyed and had his mouth open. He said, “You can’t do that. Not here. Even if you’re God all fucking mighty, you can’t do that! What the hell are you trying to pull.” It wasn’t a question.

I lifted a hand. “Hold on, Pan.” Then, to Paxton, “Just what, exactly, am I under arrest for? Specifically!”

Paxton regarded me gravely, but I detected a hint of amusement in his steely eyes. “Well, murder, of course.”

 

 

2: ALL IN A ROW

 

 

“Who, exactly,” I said, “am I supposed to have murdered?”

Paxton frowned a deep frown. “You don’t know?” The frown seemed genuine, and his tone registered shocked disbelief. “Bloody hell,” he breathed, “is your body count so high that you can’t remember?” He shook his head. “You mercenaries are unbelievable!”

His attitude of high dudgeon did not impress me. But I didn’t get the chance to respond. Santana leaned further over the coffee table and hissed, “I’ll tell you what’s unbelievable, you crock of shit. It’s that you think you can come here and put the arm on –“

I reached out and touched his shoulder. “Let the man speak, Pan. The quicker we get this out of the way, the quicker I can get back to getting stoned.” To Paxton, I said, “Just as a matter of interest, Colonel, how high is your own count?”

He glared at me. “We’re not discussing combat fatalities here. This is about the deliberate killing of a non-combatant.”

That stopped me in my tracks. And I was not certain how I should respond. A non-combatant? Was he talking about some kind of a collateral damage issue? God knows there’s always some of that. Aim an RPG as tight as you like but the lethal shrapnel spreads far and wide.

Paxton unruffled his feathers slowly. His jacket did not need straightening, but he straightened it anyway. I think he did that to give himself time to get his thoughts in order. Even then he did not reply straight away. But when he did reply his voice was controlled and even. He said, “The man’s name is – or, was…” He smiled at that, and we seemed to be all friends again. “Brigadier-General Joshua Mtomo. Late of the Union des Patriotes Congolais. And,” he added with a small shrug, “at the moment you shot him in the back, President of Bazinque…Well,” came yet another addition, as the information was battling to find its way into my brain, “at least the eastern provinces of that shit-hole of a country.”

To say I was staggered would be wildly short of the mark. But, again, it was Santana who picked up the reins.

“Um-fucking-tomo?” He spluttered incredulously. His face was a picture. “Joshua-fucking-Um-fucking-tomo?”

I was suddenly back at Tengo Junction. And it was all laid out in front of me. All the dead, and the still to die. Dead friends, dead enemies. The blood and the carnage. And, as a coda, Joshua Mtomo, resplendent in a crisp new brigadier-general’s uniform, carrying away the dying body of a man I had hated with a passion. Self-styled, self-appointed Admiral Irvine Patch, in the end a homicidal maniac. But before that, a soldier. Yes, a mercenary soldier, fighting by the mercenary’s code. But a soldier still. And it was a soldier’s battle, fought to a bloody end, face to face, barrel to barrel.

Mtomo was carrying Patch off to some kind of a show trial. I had no idea what that trial was all about, and I cared less. I might have felt differently, reacted differently, had Mtomo been there when the bullets flew. But he wasn’t. He was awaiting the outcome in relative safety, with a plan-B in his back pocket. Just in case.

And I had warned him. Put that man down or you die.

Mtomo had not put him down. So I shot him, in his back, as he carried Patch to the helicopter.

Patch himself lived for about an hour after that, so the show trial wouldn’t have happened in any case.

But then, as I said up front, you had to have been there. Most of the world can think itself lucky to be spared the actual bullets, but that same world seems more than happy to live with the results, the trappings, that those bullets create. Wealth does not simply happen. It is engineered by people just like Joshua Mtomo, and Paxton. And myself.

I actually calmed down quickly. The mental flashback had put it all into perspective. I still had unanswered questions, certainly. Like, for instance, could Mtomo be considered a non-combatant? But the meat of the thing was at least comprehensible, if ludicrous. I said, “And who’s bringing this charge, Colonel?”

Santana stared at me, his face a mask of incredulity. “Who the hell was left, Marty? There was just us!”

Paxton nodded slowly. “I’ll tell you something, Captain, for what’s it’s worth. I’ve read the reports of the Tengo Junction action. Of the whole episode, in fact. At least as far as it was recorded. And I’m impressed. As a military exploit it was a beacon. Determination against all the odds. Mind over matter.” He shook his head slowly. “Classic! And here’s something else for nothing. I was looking forward to meeting you.” He switched his gaze to Santana. “Strangely enough, I would have been looking forward to meeting you, too…if I’d known. Except that I wasn’t previously informed you would be here.” He showed us the palms of both hands then came back to me. “None of which alters the fact that you shot a non-combatant in the back. So the charge is murder.” He took a slip of paper from a pocket and studied it for a moment. “And the dignitary bringing the charge is a man called Robert Urundi…Ring any bells?” His lips curled at the edges. “I think perhaps it should.”

This was suddenly absurd.

Robert Urundi was the man Mtomo had his grudge against. Patch and his outfit were hired by Urundi, while we – Santana, Graham and the rest of B-Company – were on Mtomo’s payroll. Urundi and Mtomo were sworn enemies.

Santana relaxed back in the lounger, a twisted smile on his face. “This is all bullshit, Marty. Pure fucking bullshit!”

Paxton raised his eyebrow and nodded, “I couldn’t agree more. Odd as that admission may seem, given all I have said.” The slip of paper went back into his pocket. He looked over at the bar and lifted a hand. “The man about to join us is called Westinghouse. Tom Westinghouse. He works here in the Middle East. Saudi, actually.” He smiled at me. “You see, I’m a relative stranger here.”

Westinghouse vaguely reminded me of a middle-aged Arnold Swarzenegger, except that his haircut was to-the-bone Marine style. At a distance he might have been completely bald. His suit, though dark in color, was lightweight cotton. Well tailored. He sat himself in the lounger next to Paxton, nodded briefly to me and Santana, then turned to Paxton. “All done, sir?” he asked briefly. Which address gave me a hint of the pecking order.

Paxton nodded. “Go ahead.”

Westinghouse withdrew a slip of paper from his own pocket and held it up. “This is an arrest warrant. And it’s genuine.” He offered it to me. “Would you care to examine it?”

I didn’t have to. I was certain it would be genuine. I was also certain of something else. This was not an arrest, or anything even vaguely like an arrest. The atmosphere reeked of it; this was a business meeting.

Feeling slightly easier in my mind, I said, “Why don’t we cut to the chase?”

Westinghouse grunted, and the warrant disappeared back into his pocket. “Certainly, Captain. The chase, as you call it, is simple. But it owes a lot to the options. And the options are, one: we could arrest you here and now and you would, eventually, stand trial for the murder of Joshua Mtomo.” He looked at me under his eyebrows. “Do you doubt that?”

I shrugged. “You seem to be well prepared.”

He nodded, satisfied. “Oh, we are, captain. Extremely well prepared. On this matter, not only do we have local sanction, we also have U.N. sanction.”

Santana, on the surface at least now looking bored with the whole thing, picked up his glass and did his prayer chimes thing. He said, “Well now, there’s a bunch of wankers for you.”

Paxton appeared to stifle a smile. He raised his eyes to the ceiling of the alcove and seemed suddenly interested in something that was happening up there. And there was nothing happening up there. Westinghouse went on, “That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, you could do what we ask and the whole matter of Mister Joshua Mtomo’s death - and the manner of same - would disappear.”

As if on some kind of a cue, me and Santana exchanged ironic glances.

Situation normal.

My response was off-the-cuff. “Nice of you, I’m sure. But we already have employment.”

Still with his eyes on the ceiling, Paxton breathed, “No, you don’t.” He brought his eyes down to me then. “Halbert International Inc., right?”

That stopped me. I wondered what else they knew. More, now I was wondering how they knew. “Yes. Halbert. You think you’ve got clout, try them on for size.” But it was bluster. They would have all the bases covered. And I was reminded of a line from a movie I had seen. These people don’t take a dump without a plan! I was beginning to feel cornered. Not to mention inadequate. And it was only a small consolation to remember that S.I.S. – if that’s who these people were – had all kinds of sophisticated facilities at their disposal. The most I had was a console in some internet café.

Westinghouse said, “As we speak, Spiro Murdock is in the throes of securing the services of…let’s say, someone else.”

Spiro Murdock was CEO of Halbert International Inc. And he was an ex-mercenary. We had fought on the same side several times, before he had swapped his gun for a desk in one of the biggest mercenary recruiters/arms dealers on the globe. I considered him a friend. And he was. But, with him, business always came first. And he certainly knew which side his bread was buttered. And if he had to weigh up personal friendship against the power of the S.I.S., I guess I knew which way he would fall. I didn’t hold that against him.

All the same…

I slid my cell phone from my pocket and held it up. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, or anything like that.” I waggled the phone.

Paxton nodded. “By all means.” And he relaxed in his seat.

Westinghouse clucked his tongue like he thought I was being unreasonable. But he, too, sat back in his seat.

I dialed Spiro’s cell phone number. He answered on the third or fourth ring. And he had checked his Caller I.D.screen. He said, “Marty. I guess you’re with the heavy mob. Right?” He had a strange accent. Mid-Atlantic, self-cultivated. He was British but liked to come across as if he was from California.

I said, “Right. Is it true?”

“No choice, old son. Look, I’m sorry, pal. Maybe some other time, eh? I’m going to ring off now. Lots of luck, huh?”

And the line went dead.

I looked over at Santana and lifted a shoulder. “Like the man says.”

I was not surprised but I was a little disappointed. Perhaps Halbert Inc was not the heavyweight Spiro liked to think it was. No, that wasn’t fair. Spiro had a business to run, he had operations going down on most continents, at least half of which would in some way be dependent upon some kind of cooperation with the various security forces. He would have weighed his options carefully.

And I again I wondered about Sweeney. He would already be there, in Sri Lanka. More to the point he would have already made himself known to Spiro. Well, that was the way it should have gone down. And I wondered. For some reason Paxton had not been aware that Santana would be here, which meant he was not as all-seeing as he was making out. Maybe none of them knew about Sweeney. None, that was, except Spiro. What that meant in the overall scheme of things, I didn’t know. But I figured it had to mean something.

Santana was sitting up again. “You bastards,” he muttered, but without any real rancor. A description rather than an insult. He did not know Murdock personally, but he knew the business we were in. And this, what was happening here now, was the mercenary business. Meat and drink, in fact.

Westinghouse did not seem put out. He glanced at Santana and lifted a shoulder. “Yep. A prize bitch, isn’t it?” He smiled a crooked smile.

Paxton, a similar smile on his face, turned to me. “You were saying?” he said in a vaguely supercilious tone.

The waiter appeared with an empty tray balanced on his fingers. “Can I get you gentlemen something?” He looked at each of us in turn. I thought, what the hell? “Anyone want anything?”

Westinghouse shook his head and seemed annoyed at the interruption. But Paxton lifted a finger. “Yes, please. Gin sling.”

Santana lifted his glass. “Same again. Make it a double.”

To Paxton, I said, “How about your pals?” I nodded back over my shoulder. “Shall we make it a full house?”

He just smiled but said nothing.

I placed my empty glass on the waiter’s tray. “Same here.”

The man nodded politely and disappeared back into the bar, leaving a heavy smell of sweat behind him. Westinghouse noticed it and crinkled his nose. I said, “The smell of good, honest work.”

Paxton said, “Speaking of which…Work, I mean”

I said, “Let me get this straight. You’ve cooked up this thing about – “

Westinghouse cut in. “We’ve cooked up nothing. This warrant - ” He patted his pocket. “ - is legal and binding. And we didn’t instigate it. It originated…” He hesitated, shooting Paxton a glance.

Paxton nodded. “He knows.”

Westinghouse smiled broadly and came back to me. “It originated from the very administration you foolishly left intact when you did your number on Mtomo. He wants you brought to book, Captain.” He spread his arms. “There’s no justice, is there? After all, at the time you actually did the man a favor. Right?”

You’d have thought!

Paxton leant forward purposefully and rested his elbows on his knees, his hands held loosely over the coffee table, within easy parradiddle reach. “Let me lay it out for you. Your contract with Halbert is null and void. So you’re basically unemployed as of this moment. We could, and will,” he added vehemently, “enforce the warrant we hold on you, if we cannot reach agreement here. And, just in case you have any doubts about that, we are actually duty-bound to enforce this warrant. No question. And we will have to do that because we accepted the assignment in the first place. And our department is not in the habit of accepting commissions on which we cannot deliver.” He smiled. “Bad for the image, don’t you know.”

The waiter came back with the drinks and things ground to an uncomfortable silence while the order was sorted out. When we all had the correct drinks in our hands, and we were alone again, Paxton went on, “If we take you in, Captain, you will stand trial. I do hope you believe that.”

I said nothing. What the hell could I say? Santana remained silent, too. God alone knew where his mind was.

“I see that you do believe that.” Paxton went on. “This is good. Now, as to what it’s all about…” Slight hesitation. “…We need you to go back into Bazinque. And we need – “

Santana sat bolt upright as if stung. “Hold the phone,” he grated. Then again, “Hold – the – goddamn - phone!”

Paxton sat back, a thin smile picking at his mouth. He lifted a hand in Westinghouse’s direction, passing the buck. “I think the honorable gentleman has an objection.” I guessed that he spent some of his leisure time watching the British parliamentary channel. For myself, I could not drum up a reaction, angry or otherwise. The whole thing seemed to lack reality, and I was content to wait and see.

Westinghouse picked up the gauntlet. To Santana, he said, “You don’t like the idea?”

Santana spat, “You’ve got to be out of your cotton-picking mind! Who the hell would go back to that place?”

Westinghouse was unmoved. He looked at me.” You will.“ He flashed a glance at Paxton and they exchanged a glance that could have meant anything. He added, “Both of you.” He looked at Santana. “You should have gone to the cinema, old son. Then you could simply have carried on with your life. As it is…” He waved a vague hand in the air. “Well, as it is, you’ve saved us a bit of trouble. What’s the saying? Two birds with one stone? Like it or like it not, you’re now on the roles. So,” he added, “you will both go back into Bazinque. And you will do that because you have no choice. More importantly, you’ll do it because it’s your calling. Your chosen profession.”

I thought I had to say something. “For what purpose…exactly?”

Paxton said, “You will be given that information when we have an agreement in principle.”

Santana grunted, then surprised me by blurting out, “A quarter of a million dollars, and you’ve got a deal!” He had a triumphant look on his face.

Paxton surprised me even more, by saying, “Agreed.”

“Each!” said Santana, some of the wind taken out of his sails.

“Of course,” said Paxton, smiling. He turned to me. “But we need this to be unanimous...Captain?” His tone rose to the question.

Strangely, I didn’t buy it. But I did not know why. Maybe it all seemed too easy. Too pat. And it wasn’t the numbers. A half a million dollars may seem a large number in terms of dollar bills in your pocket, but by international standards it was chicken feed. Barely even that. Most of the world’s mercenary operations were brought about by someone’s need, or, more correctly, someone’s lust, for a commodity. Copper, gold, silver and the like. And commodities are brokered by banks, not individuals. These institutions began counting at the nine zeros level.

So I was confused. Not just about that, but about everything. The whole deal.

However, I was not about to let that confusion become evident. Not if I could help it. I shook my head. “You’ll have to be a bit more specific.”

Westinghouse leant towards me. “You don’t need specifics to be agreed in principle.”

I took a sip of my drink. If I had learned anything from my chequered career it was not to be hasty in negotiations, and certainly not when you’re confused. I said, “Well, I agree to the principle, sure. If we can find common ground on the detail, I might take it further. But that’s heavy on the might! If I don’t like the job, I won’t do it. Plain and simple. And I do not do suicide missions or massacres.” I shot Paxton a glare, just in case he felt like shoving his oar in there. “I don’t do Bar Mitzvahs nor weddings either, for that matter.” I smiled. It wasn’t a bad joke, considering. “So take your best shot. You have our full attention.”

Paxton and Westinghouse exchanged glances. But, again, I could read nothing specific in their expressions. Santana had resumed his relaxed mode in the huge lounger. He had a slightly amused look on his face, as if he were suddenly enjoying the whole thing. He winked at me encouragingly. He obviously approved of the way things were going.

Westinghouse said, “Nothing complicated. We need you to take command of a small force currently gathering in Bazinque. Specifically…” He shot me a meaningful glance, then, without the emphasis, repeated, “Specifically, a place called Mocambo, some distance north of your infamous Tengo Junction. There you will train and prepare. Then, on a designated date, you will engage and destroy the occupants of a compound known as Garrison Five. That’s in the Bakouma region. Some two hundred miles north-east of Mocambo”

That rang a bell somewhere in my memory. Years ago, well before I had first arrived in Africa, the British colonial system had run a whole string of forts. One, to upwards of twenty, I thought. Though I had never come across any of them. I said, “British?”

It was Paxton who responded with, “Not any more. Nice to know you’re up on your history, though. And it couldn’t matter less who runs that compound now. To yourself, that is. You only have to destroy them.”

Santana chuckled. “I didn’t think you’d be asking us to arrange a garden party for them.”

Paxton, not even slightly amused, shot him a blank stare.

I said, “But it does matter who runs the compound, Colonel. It actually matters quite a lot. I need to know their strength. I need to know – “

Westinghouse interrupted. “We estimate a force of fifty or sixty. No more than that. And not currently well armed. Your command will equal that number. And that’s at least! And you’ll be far better armed, and far better prepared. You just have to go in there and do your mercenary thing.” He smiled a crooked smile and sat back in his seat. “And that’s it. Top to bottom.”

I did not have to give it a lot of thought. I said, “That sounds like a simple job.” I showed Westinghouse the palm of my hand because he’d opened his mouth to say something. “You missed my emphasis. I said it sounds like a simple job. Not a simple job. It doesn’t sound like something you would need to employ bully-boy tactics for. So what was that all about? The arrest warrant, and all that bullshit?”

He answered, “If you think it’s bullshit, captain, refuse the assignment, and we’ll see.”

I had already decided on that. I said, “Oh, I’ll take the job. We seem to find ourselves between posts at the moment.” I smiled over at Santana. “Okay with you, Pan?”

Santana nodded and pulled a go-for-it face.

I decided, on the spot, not to push my doubts any further. Except, that was, for one. I said, “What does Robert Urundi have to do with any of that?”

It was Paxton who answered, his demeanor displaying a subtle shift. “Robert Urundi needs you for the very reason that Mtomo needed your contemporary, the so-called admiral Patch. In a nutshell, he needs legitimacy to run his country effectively. And to do that he needs to lay a particular ghost.” He inclined his head in my direction “And that ghost is you! He needs to prove to his people – well, at least half of them - that he did not personally order Mtomo’s death, that it all came about because of…” He shrugged vaguely. “… because outside influences. You, basically,“ he put in with another slight lift of his shoulders. “That country, prior to your own involvement, captain, was split fifty-fifty. Or as near as dammit. The west for Urundi, the east for Mtomo. The split still exists, despite that only one side currently has a figurehead. This is making it difficult to run the country.”

I said, “Difficult for whom? Urundi? Or you?”

Paxton smiled. “Perceptive, captain. But hardly your bailiwick. That borders on politics. Are we really going to have a discussion on politics?”

I shook my head. “It’s not politics, it’s business.”

He sucked air in through clenched teeth. “How true, how true! Well spotted, captain, Okay. We need that country to run effectively. And, as it stands, Urundi’s making an almighty pig’s ear of the job. His country has degenerated into a hotbed of warlords, murder squads and inter-tribal warfare, on a scale that staggers the imagination.” He smiled. “We’re going to put that right, if we can.”

I said, “Very noble of you, I’m sure. But why don’t we call a spade a spade. What is it? Copper?”

Paxton shrugged and settled back in his seat. “Either that or gold, or raw plutonium. Isn’t it always something like that?”

That was a switch. I had meant it as sarcasm. My surprise must have shown on my face. He went on, “Yes, Captain. Like your would-be current employer, I once was a serving soldier myself. And it wasn’t so long ago that I don’t remember the high-level betrayals and the double crosses. Bastard politicians…right?”

He laughed at my expression. And he went on, “Well, now I’m behind a desk, with a new job. And I like this one fine. It gives me the facility to make some of the bigger decisions myself, and to dictate terms to men like you.” He flapped a hand between Santana and me. “And here’s another admission, I wouldn’t have shot Mtomo in the back, I would have slit the bastard’s throat. But the big difference between me and you, captain, is that I would have done that up front, the minute I clapped eyes on him. I would not have waited until the conflict was more or less over.”

Westinghouse seemed slightly embarrassed. He cleared his throat softly and looked at his watch. The action seemed to settle him. “The time, sir,” he said.

Paxton, his eyes still boring into mine, seemed to pull himself together. “What?”

Westinghouse held up the wrist with the watch on it. “Time’s getting on sir. The flight?”

The old Paxton came back. “Oh, yes. Right.” He looked at his own watch. “Yes, of course.” He downed his drink in one. “Well then, gentlemen, before we give this the rubber stamp, any questions?”

I said, “It seems to me that you’re going to have an image problem.”

Paxton smiled. “We’ve had an image problem since year dot. We’ll deal with it. Anything else?”

Santana, who had obviously been brooding the point, said, “You said you didn’t know I was here. So how did you twig?”

Paxton glanced at Westinghouse, who shrugged. “You’re on file.” He chuckled. “But only just. Hardly more than a picture, actually. “He lifted a shoulder. “No offence.”

Santana returned his shrug. “None taken.” But he would be a shade miffed.

“You turned,“ Westinghouse continued, “and I saw your face. End of story.”

Paxton patted the pocket with his phone in it. “He informed me.” He added, “Wonderful things, these mobile phones. And now…” He showed us his watch again. “Time is pressing. Here’s how it’s going to happen. We will all leave together. Your packing has already been seen to and your cases are waiting for you down in the transport. You’ll find that nothing has been overlooked. From there we take a ride to the airport, where – “

Santana, on a scornful chuckle, butted in, “Hold up there, pal.”

Paxton was already reaching into another of his pockets. “I’m ahead of you.” He withdrew an envelope and handed it to me. “In there you will find a cashier’s cheque, drawn on American Express, to the value of one million dollars. You can cash it at your destination the instant you land.” He spread his hands. “Or you can deal with it any way that suits your fancy. But five hundred thousand dollars of it you will use as a rolling expenses fund. At least that much. And it’s accountable,” he added forcefully. “You can split the residue between you any way you see fit. Your rank and file are Askaris, and they are already on someone else’s payroll, so you can forget about their wages.”

That made me sit up. “Askaris? Just Askaris?”

He nodded. And there was something of a poorly disguised apology in his slightly hesitant reply. Which had me thinking that he was wishing he hadn’t mentioned it. “The rank and file, yes. Our request was for an already fully integrated unit, and that’s just what we received. You simply need mold it to your purpose” He had tried, and failed, to inject a positive angle into that last statement. I couldn’t see anything at all positive about fighting with a force solely comprised of Askaris.

Santana scoffed. “Oh, f’chrissakes! I eat Askaris for breakfast. Is that the best you could bloody-well come up with?”

Paxton controlled his reply with obvious effort. And he ignored Santana, staring fixedly at me. “There was the time factor to consider. If your timetable permits, you can make your own adjustments.” He added a forceful, “But only if time permits.”

I was reserving judgment on all of that. I had my own opinions of Askaris. But, disappointing though the news was, I didn’t think it a point worth laboring at that moment. I said, “Whose payroll are they on?”

Paxton frowned. “Does it matter?”

“It matters to me.”

Westinghouse spread his arms. “For God’s sake, why? They’re there to be used, so use them.“ Which was the typical response of someone who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

I looked at him. ”Have you ever fired a shot in anger?”

He frowned, not sure where I was going with that. “I’ve done my share.”

I bit down on a flash of irritation. “It’s all down to motivation, chummie. Forget the little matter of qualification and experience; if you’re going to ask a man to put himself in harm’s way, you need to know he’s got the right stuff. And in our case the right stuff is money. Remember? We’re mercenaries. It’s all about money…wages.”

Paxton, in an effort, I thought, to diffuse the situation, put in, “Your Askaris are under contract to the C.D.R.C. Need I go into detail?”

He did not need to do that. The C.D.R.C, the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was yet another organization that placed its finger in every African pie, but that only took sides when the fighting was over and the outcome assured. These people threw home-grown mercenaries - which was what the Askaris were - around as if they were going out of style. And the pay grade, when set against normal rank and file income, was very high. It actually figured that they would be involved somewhere along the line.

Paxton nodded, apparently satisfied that I understood. “So you see, they will have the motivation you mentioned.” He sat up in his seat and waved a hand in the air. “Moving on, you will also have call on as much ordnance as you require. And all of it state-of-the-art. If you need more currency, that can be arranged.” He levered himself up out of the chair. Then he seemed to remember something. He looked at Santana, tutted, and smiled thinly. “If I was in your line of work, sunshine, I wouldn’t even get out of bed for a quarter mil.” He indicated the exit. “Shall we?”

There did not seem any point in procrastinating. I knew there was a question I should be asking, but I couldn’t pull it together. It was the booze, I was fairly sure. And the surprise. I certainly had not been ready for this turn of events.

Five minutes later we stepped out of the lift into the bustling lobby. One of the new guys was on my shoulder every step of the way, the other on Santana’s. A uniformed police officer stepped over to us and held out a couple of passports. I assumed they were mine and Santana’s. Paxton, with an apologetic shrug at me, took possession of them. He said, “Wait here a moment, will you, please.”

He went ahead and stepped out through out the automatic doors.

Westinghouse exchanged a few sentences with the policeman in Arabic. The man saluted and disappeared. We were bundled out the automatic doors into the wet heat of the night. I wondered what had happened to the fairy lights I was looking down on before.

The transport was black Hummer with heavily tinted windows. Its doors were open, and I could see at least one other man in the front seat, aside from the driver, who was a local. Behind that vehicle was its twin. Both vehicles had their engines ticking over. Paxton stood by the open rear door of the lead Hummer and, after one of the heavies had climbed in, waved me in after him. Santana was ushered into the seat next to the man by the driver. Paxton slid in the seat behind him. The other heavy slid in beside me. It was the classic pen-them-in scenario. But I had expected something like that. At least, I thought I had. The only question in my mind was, where’s my stuff? As if reading my mind Westinghouse leant in and told us that the gear was in the trailing Hummer.

“My backpack,” I said. I used that for the overnight stuff and a few books.

“It’s there,” said Westinghouse. “Yours, too,” he said to Santana. “Don’t worry. Yours are not the first bags we have had to pack in a hurry.”

Comfort zone, it’s all about the comfort zone. And dropping your guard. If this were a field of battle I would have had it all weighed up. And the last thing I would drop would be my guard, plastered or stone-cold sober.

Up in the bar, the smells of civilization and a tinkling piano had sucked me in. Here in the Hummer, which smelled the way expensive new cars smell, I felt comfortable. If you have to take a car ride, a Hummer would be favorite. However I felt about the deal, the die was cast, and I was going with the flow. Even in retrospect I can’t see what I could – would - have done differently. Except that I might have recognized Westinghouse’s glance at Paxton for what it was. It was in his eyes, a bit like his slight embarrassment up in the bar when Paxton had seemed to bare something of his soul. And it was to do with Santana. And how he had been slotted into what was obviously a pre-planned operation that, at first, had not included him.

It had to be the booze.

But several things happened as soon as the Hummer pulled away from the hotel and we were in amongst the traffic. Firstly, the heavies on either side of me grabbed an arm apiece. And they were strong guys. I was locked in a vice.

Almost in the same instant I saw Paxton reach into his jacket. I did not see the silenced gun in his hand, but I knew it was there. And, though there was no explosion to speak of, the flash was blinding. Santana’s head jerked back as if on elastic. Paxton must have been using smokeless rounds, because there was no smoke. But the fumes were choking.

And I was utterly helpless.

 

 

3: THE DEAL

 

 

“I took no pleasure from that, captain.”

Unscrewing the silencer from his weapon, Paxton leant back over the seat. “But you probably don’t give a shit, right? You’d like to slit my throat.”

I was still held in a vice, and the men’s grip had tightened on my arms to the point where blood flow was in question. So intent were they to keep me immobile their faces were close to mine, nose to cheek. One of them had recently eaten garlic, I noticed inconsequentially. And the other was obviously a heavy smoker. I said nothing because I could think of nothing to say. My instinct was to call Paxton every filthy name I could drag to mind. But I didn’t. Whatever else was happening inside my brain I knew that a slanging match would only serve to let off steam, which would put me at yet another disadvantage. Besides, the battle was already lost. So I forced myself to silence and stared at the back of Santana’s head, remembering.

Someone had opened a couple of windows, allowing the cordite fumes to be replaced by the hot, humidity-laden evening air as the Hummer slid through the night. I wasn’t sure which was worse.

Paxton went on, “You see, captain. This contract was always just for you. If your buddy hadn’t been with you, he’d be…” He grunted. “Well, he’d be wherever he’d be.”

The part of my brain that was operating properly was wondering why Santana’s brain wasn’t spread all over the back seats. The answer, of course, was that the gun was a light calibre weapon using full metal jacketed rounds that expend themselves on impact. That piece of military deduction, bordering on my comfort zone, helped to settle me.

Paxton turned to his front and murmured an instruction to the driver, who pulled the Hummer off the main drag into a deserted side street and stopped. And still I was held in the vice-like grip. Which was probably just as well. Because I might, even then, have tried something that I would definitely live to regret, or die in the attempt.

They slid Santana’s limp body out of the door. He would disappear into a hole in the nearby desert, which would be an unfitting, unfair end to a real fighting spirit. His image raced through my mind as a demented slide show. “B” Company. The Red River. Hopo. And Tengo Junction.

“In there,” Santana had shouted, indicating one of the ruined buildings.

I called back, “What the fuck's in there, Pancho?”

His face broke into a broad grin. “What d'you think?”

He gave an instruction to his men and they wandered off. Santana trotted over. “Go look...” he said, still smiling.

We went.

It was Patch.

The room must have taken a grenade, because it was a mess of splintered wood and smoking embers, dead men and bits of dead men. The acrid stench of spent cordite was still heavy in the air. Patch was sitting against a door jamb, fully conscious, but apparently unable to move either arms or legs. The three of us stood there looking down at him. And he sat there looking up at us.

Santana, his voice hushed as if there was a spell he was unwilling to break, hissed, “Just in case there's a prize, or something, thems my bullets in him.”

I smiled at the memory.

Not that Tengo was anything at all to smile about. Quite the reverse. Tengo was a gut-wrenching, bowel-loosening hell on earth that very few of “B” Company had survived. I had a feeling that Santana would haunt my mind for some time. Just like the others. But then, they had died in battle. And most had known, or at least had suspected it might come. Santana had died without knowing why. But perhaps his very last thought on earth was about how he was going to spend his brilliantly negotiated quarter mil.

I hoped it was something like that.

Westinghouse must have been on clean-up detail, because his Hummer didn’t follow this time. When we were again on the road, Paxton said, “We’re about ten minutes from the airport. So if you have something to say, say it now. Get it out of your system.”

At last I found my voice. “So you priced my services at half a million.” Strangely, I found it easy to shelve what had just happened. Negative thoughts were less than useless. Some time in the future I might get the chance to even the balance. If I could find out what that balance was. But a lot of my anger had been, still was, - still is, in fact - directed at myself. I should have put the numbers together. Should have seen it coming. Because it was there to be seen.

Paxton nodded. “Well, you’re a realist, I’ll give you that. Which philosophy must be a boon in your business. And you are correct; we figured that half a million would clinch the deal. Or at the very least it would constitute a more-than-acceptable up-front payment.” He left it a beat, then went on, “If the boys let you go right now, what would you do?”

I said, “Nothing.” And I said it with as much of a matter-of-fact tone I could muster. The last thing I wanted was to come across as sulky, despite that that was my instinct. “Nothing at all,” I added. “What’s done is done.”

Paxton hesitated. Then he nodded at the men.

Slowly, they eased their grip and I felt the blood returned to my lower arms. But they, too, hesitated, their hands still encircling my arms, as if expecting a change of heart. I didn’t move. They didn’t take their eyes off me for an instant, but they moved away. I said, “You just wasted a first-rate, tried and tested second in command, and I’d like to know why.”

Paxton nodded. “I don’t doubt for an instant that he was a great fighter. Records always speak for themselves. But in this case, the make-up and strength of your command has already been decreed, and not, I hasten to add, by myself. You are sitting there for one reason, and one reason only. You are Captain Martin Palmer. You are a wanted man. But you are also just the man for the job. Putting these two things together was my idea, and is my responsibility. If you perform this job in the way I know you can, you wipe the slate clean on all levels, providing your own official pardon. Because you will be taking out the very man who brought the charges in the first place. You see, captain, your target, your specific target, is Robert Urundi himself.”

Suddenly it all made sense.

“Making room,” I said, “for your lot to install a puppet.”

He positively beamed. “I like the word puppet, don’t you? Means so much more than just having your hand stuck up someone’s arse. As to a second in command, you already have one. I don’t know who the man is, and I care less. The significant factor, and maybe the answer to your question, is that he has never met me! Do you get it now?”

    I did indeed get it. Paxton was one of the faceless fixers. Probably C.I.A. Maybe even S.I.S. These people go to any lengths to remain non-entities. But there was something. “Santana hadn’t met you either. Not you. He met someone who called himself Paxton. Is the colonel bit a lie, too?”

Paxton chuckled. “You misunderstand. I said that your 2i/c has never met me… by that I mean he has never even seen me. Unfortunately for him, your friend Santana had. And I don’t leave potential loose ends anywhere. Not unless there’s a damned good reason.”

I said, “And I’ve seen you, too. What’s the endplay on that one?”

He laughed. “By God, but aren’t you the smart one. Well, Captain, the endplay on that is one you can sort out for yourself. Maybe, when this all done and dusted, you can engineer your way out of it. Find a way to be quicker than me. Cleverer? You’re a resourceful man. Then again,” he added, “maybe you’re as safe as a safe thing. Maybe I don’t consider you a threat to my continued obscurity. Maybe you’re different. Maybe you’re one of those damned good reasons. ” He waved a vague hand in the air. “Maybe this, maybe that. The possibilities are endless. For an endgame, that is. For now, you need only consider that you are actually in employment. That you have been paid to do a job that will ultimately benefit you. And I’m not referring to your bank balance here. Plus, of course, you’ve been paid upfront. That should be enough, for a mercenary.”

And he was right. That was enough, and it always had been enough. Santana apart, or even with Santana, I knew that the only way forward was to accept the inevitable penalty of the lifestyle I had chosen.

A mercenary soldier, by definition, works for money, not for cause. But I was not a mercenary soldier for the money. I was what I was because I knew nothing else. The American government had taught me how to fight, and had done a good job of it. If they had done as good a job at teaching guys like me to integrate back into normal society when the fighting was over, who knows what I might have been.

This is not sour grapes. It’s a simple truth.

So I moved on.

“This Garrison Five. It’s a stronghold of some kind, right?”

“It is. Very similar to the compound you worked out of when you were last in that country. Except that, this time, Urundi is the current incumbent. So you see, you’re perfect for the assignment on many levels. Motive, experience, and allegiance.”

I said, “The motive bit, I get. Experience, too, I guess. Not so sure about the allegiance, though.”

He chuckled. “But that’s the best part. It’s your allegiance to me, personally! You don’t think I’d pay you telephone numbers up front unless I wasn’t certain of that. Do you?”

I said, “Since it’s academic now, tell me.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “It’s far from academic! You see, without my personal hand on the tiller of this operation, you are a dead man. With the forces lined up against you, you wouldn’t last a week. And even if you did, you would spend the rest of your days – and there wouldn’t be very many of them - looking over your shoulder, waiting for the axe to fall.” He shook his head. “And I know you couldn’t handle that.”

And he was right again. This thing had to be run to a natural conclusion. I said, “You should be a politician, Paxton.”

He put on a mock shiver. “Brrr. Perish the very idea. Any other questions? On the operational level, that is. I think we’ve covered everything else.”

I said, “Since it might be pertinent, what’s the latest intel on the local air force?”

He scoffed. “Air force! That’s a joke! Two or three SA 318 Alouette helicopters, a couple of Soviet-built transports and two - ” He held up two fingers. “ - count ‘em. Two fighters. MiG 21s. Neither of them serviceable as we speak. You can forget about the Air Force. It isn’t one!”

No surprises there. But it seemed worth a mention. I said, “Am I likely to know any of the guys down there?”

“I presume you are not referring to the rank and file here.”

“You presume correctly.”

He shrugged. “Not likely. But you can be assured that they know you. At least they will know of you.” He grunted. “I told you, your Tengo action was a classic. And there’s more. I personally know of at least a handful of African dictators and the like who would hire you at a stroke, and at any number you care to designate. You’re famous, captain. Sought after. Which fact should keep you in lucrative employment for some time to come. I’m told that your friend Spiro Murdock was disappointed to have to pass up on your employment.” He nodded emphatically. “Mightily disappointed.”

Inconsequentially, I said, “Have you met him?”

He shook his head. “Nope.” He chuckled. “But my organization has used his organization several times in the past. He’s yet another resourceful man.”

And again I wondered about Sweeney Graham.

Paxton continued, “And that’s enough small talk, captain. I’ve been as straight with you as I can be, given the very peculiar circumstances. Just do your job, and it could be that no-one ends up with egg on his face.” He reached into his pocket, sorted my passport out from Santana’s, and, after a brief hesitation, handed it over. “You’ll find it has all the necessary visas. On the surface, a two-week visit. All official and valid. The rest will be up to yourself. Your flight is at midnight-forty, and your initial destination is Bokoro. That’s – “

“Cameroon,” I pushed in, if only to tell him that was not dealing with a complete idiot.

He nodded, not very impressed. “Yes, Cameroon. Our man will meet you there. Don’t worry, he’ll find you. There you can sort out your cash situation whichever way you want to do it. Our man will be able to help with that, if help is needed. And that,” he added, “is the last time you will use your own passport.” He produced yet another passport and waggled it at me. “From then on, at least until you drop off the radar, you will use this one. Familiarize yourself with the name and details, because these will be on the Bokoro flight manifest. You are David Watts, an investment consultant with the Chase Manhattan Bank. If you do choose to carry any, or all, of that money about your person, that could explain it, should you find in a yourself in a situation where it needs be explained.” He grunted. “It’ll cost you kick-backs, of course. Doesn’t it always down there? How much, will depend upon yourself and your handling of the situation. But for sure it’ll not be cheap. You can bank on that. Plus,” he added, smiling, “Such kick-backs do not come under the heading of expenses!” 

Naturally!

How many times had I seen this scenario played out in movies?

But it was all valid. Especially the passport. My own name would certainly be high on Bazinque’s list of unwelcome people.

He held it out to me and I reached for it. But he didn’t let it go.

“In any other country, he said, “that document would not bear too much scrutiny. But it’s the best we could achieve in the time available to us. So don’t draw attention to yourself. You do know why you cannot use your own passport to get into Bazinque, don’t you?”

Oh, good grief! I said, “No, Paxton, do tell me.”

He drew a breath to reply, then seemed to cotton on. “Yes, of course you do.” He finally let go of the passport.

“Our man will then put you on a flight down to Haraze. Which is the extent of your ticket. So from there on in you’ll be on expenses.”

He didn’t bother with his geography lecture thing here. Which I thought was a shame, because I didn’t have a clue where Haraze was. 

“From there,” he went on, “Well, from there, who knows? You need to get down to Kwanza. You can sort that out yourself, you’ll have the funds by then. Chopper, maybe. Charter flight. Something like that. The entirely fictitious David Watts’ visa is good for Kwanza. At least we think it is. You know the score down in that part of the world.” He chuckled and threw in a disparaging, “If it is part of the world?”

I said, “Well, not part of yours, obviously.” Them and us.

He snorted. “Damn right, sunshine! You wouldn’t catch me down there for…well, for the million dollars you have in your pocket. It’s a filthy bloody country, and I mean that in its literal sense. But, each to his own, right?”

I nodded. “As you remark.” It was slightly unnerving to realize that Paxton was right more often than wrong.

“Your contact in Kwanza is a man called Kembe. Morton Kembe. He’s not part of the organization, he’s an asset. You know what one of those is?”

I slapped on a bored expression and said nothing. I was done with trying to impress.

He said, “Yeah, sure you do! Well, again, he’ll find you. But if there’s been a slip-up somewhere along the way and he doesn’t find you, go to the railway station and ask for him by name. That’s where he works. His day job.” He chuckled, pleased with that one. “In the signal box, at the moment. But he’s a railway jack-of-all-trades. So they could have him doing just about anything. But that’s where you start earning your keep. There’s a consignment of armaments and equipment waiting for you somewhere down there…”

“Somewhere?”

He nodded. “Indeed…somewhere. We thrive, captain, because we operate the need-to-know principle. And, just at this moment, you don’t need to know that detail. The instant you arrive in Kwanza, of course, you will need to know. Which is where Kembe will start earning his keep.” He chuckled. “You may find this difficult to grasp, captain, but even I am not privy to that little snippet.”

I wondered if that could be true. It probably was.

He went on, “So, Kembe is the key. He also has feelers in Garrison Five. And he’ll know how to relay any messages to, or from, us. You can forget all about normal cell phone comms down there. They don’t exist. Certainly not the commercial kind, and certainly not anywhere north of Brazzaville, and south of Kisangani. When, eventually, you arrive in Macambo, Kembe will pass you over to my man, who will in turn pass you over to your command. And, from that moment on, each and every executive decision will be yours, and yours alone. Make it work, captain. Make it work! And that’s it. End of briefing. Okay?”

“Not okay. Are you telling me that they’re currently devoid of equipment?”

Paxton clucked his tongue. “Not devoid, captain.“ He shrugged. “Merely in need of, shall we say, a significant edge?”

“A significant edge” I repeated, not convinced. I had a feeling he was fudging the truth here. But, yet again, I couldn’t see where that feeling might take me.

“Indeed.” He was beginning to look bored with the whole thing. And did it matter? Actually, it didn’t. Not any more. The dice had been rolled.

I said, “Fine.”

And it was.

"This first leg of your flight is First Class, so you can check in straight away. I’m not going to say it’s been a pleasure, but I will say that I’m glad we met. I really was looking forward to that. At least now I can flesh out the myth. So go get plastered, captain. But not too plastered, eh?”

He held out his hand to be shaken.

I ignored it.

And I don’t think he was one bit surprised.

 

*

 

The first class departure lounge reminded me a lot of the rooftop bar of the Al Jazeera. Similar dim lighting, the same smells, the same soft hum of the air-conditioning system, and more or less the same sounds. Except that the tinkling piano came from the musak ‘speakers and the view looked out over the floodlit aircraft maneuvering area. The main difference was the number of customers. Here, except for a bored-looking barman who’d probably been polishing that same glass since the beginning of his shift, there were only three others. Some guy who might have been a low-level sheikh, in his spotless thobe and wazar, currently fiddling with a laptop at one of the tables, and a couple of expensively-clad businessmen swapping jokes at the other end of the long bar.

It was a few minutes past eleven and I was on my fourth Jack Daniels and was still as sober as a judge. I had pecked at the whole thing from every angle and kept coming back to the same answer. The job was there to be done, despite what had happened to Santana. And so I would do it. I had worked for more devious characters than Paxton in my time, and under even more tenuous conditions.

I was working on my fifth Jack Daniels when my cell phone went beep beep beep I looked at the LCD screen hoping I’d see Sweeney’s name there, and I did! That gave me a lift. Somewhere in the back of my mine I had already written his epitaph.

The message read, “no fon dis num.”

I had to read it twice.

“no fon dis num.”  What the hell was that all about?

Sweeney was as bad at texting as I was. But neither of us was that bad. So there had to be a reason for the ambiguity. Obviously I had to read between the lines. He didn’t want me to call him; that was obvious. And it was not hard to guess why. At least I was able to take a stab at a guess. What was not so obvious was that he’d bothered to add “dis num” This number? That was a puzzle. And I was still pondering it when the tannoy announced that our flight was boarding. The four of us made our way to the gate and down the tunnel. The aircraft was a 727 and was just as sparsely inhabited. At least, the first class section was; the peon-class section was heaving with bodies, and I didn’t feel even the slightest pang of guilt. I threw my backpack into the luggage rack and settled into my seat . Why the hell would Sweeney not want me to call that number?

 What other number did …

And it came to me. He actually had two cell phones! His old one, and the new one he’d bought in Cairo. A Blackberry something-or-other with all the bells and whistles. It was no wonder he had not answered Santana’s calls. We had both forgotten about the new phone! A quick check on my phone told me that I had not deleted his old number. I almost hit the text-mode button, but I stopped myself.

With the power Paxton had at his fingertips he could keep tabs on just about anything electronic, anywhere on the globe. Certainly a cell phone. He could very likely pin-point its location down to a matter of meters. I looked at my own phone. Was it already being tracked? Probably. For sure, despite our agreement, he would want to know that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. At least as far as Haraze. A man like that would leave nothing to chance if he could avoid it.

But did that matter?

Probably not. Certainly not at this moment. If and when it ever reached the stage where I thought it might be a problem, I could simply turn it off. Or remove the battery. Then I wondered what had happened to make Sweeney doubt his new phone, with its new number. More importantly, when had he begun to doubt it? Was it after he had reached Sri Lanka, or before? Had he already spoken to Spiro? If he had, then the fact that he was still alive to send text messages at all ought to mean something.

I turned my phone over in my hand, wondering.

Then I realized that it did matter. Modern surveillance methods being what they were, they would also be able to determine whose number I dialed. Which would immediately compromise Sweeney’s old cell phone too. So, basically, I couldn’t call either of his numbers! Not if I wanted him to remain anonymous. And I did want that, if only for the dubious pleasure of having one over on Paxton.

The stewardess appeared at my elbow. “May I get you a drink, sir?” Then she saw the phone in my hand. “Oh, sorry, sir, but you can’t use that now. We’re about to take off.”

I bit down on a flash of irritation. I hadn’t been about to use it. Well, maybe I had, but not at the moment she saw the damned phone in my hand. I was about to give her a smart answer when she reached over and lifted the on-board phone from its clip on the bulkhead beside me, and placed it in my hand. Her left breast had come within an inch of my mouth. I was tempted, but I didn’t. “Besides, “she smiled, “This one’s free.”

There was no smell of sweat with this girl. It was all shower gel and subtle perfume. And her smile would have melted leather. I mumbled my thanks and told her I’d have a Jack Daniels. I also remembered how long it had been since I had had any kind of normal sex. Too damned long. Years, in fact. The last experience of any kind was outside the high walls of “B”Company compound. A quick and a totally unsatisfying blow-job from a local girl, and even that had cost me twenty dollars.

The throaty whistle of the engines winding up to take-off power grabbed my attention. I glanced out the window. I could make out the lights of Dubai in the distance, and I wondered about Santana. Was his body already consigned to a hole in the sand? I forced the memory from my mind.

When a thing’s done, it’s done.

A few minutes later we were in the air, banking to the west, headed for…what?

The stewardess came back with the drink. She glanced at the phone I still held in my hand and a small frown pulled at her brows. I felt vaguely embarrassed. The girl would already have arrived at the conclusion that I rarely traveled first class. And she would be right. My normal mode of flight was in the cargo hold of some military transport or other. That, or a tourist class seat with a cheap airline. This was not because I could not afford to travel with the well-heeled; I was actually a fairly rich man. I had money stashed all over the place. Mostly in ten-tola gold bars. The reason was that I simply could not be bothered to organize flights when a flight was needed. Mostly, unless the flight had been pre-booked and paid for by someone else, I would just turn up at an airport and take it from there.

“Can I get you anything else, sir? A snack, perhaps?”

I shook my head. “No thanks, I’ll just…ah…” I waggled the phone as if the action signified something.

She nodded. “Well, just press the button if you do need me.”

And she wandered off to deal with someone else.

I glanced around the cabin. The maybe-sheikh was a couple of rows in front of me, still with his nose in his laptop. The two businessmen were in table seats on the other side of the cabin. They were studying a menu. The stewardess had stopped to chat to a couple, a man and woman, in the seats by the partition to the other section of the aircraft. And there was a guy on his own sat by the flight deck door. His seat was fully reclined and he seemed to be sleeping. No-one was paying me any attention at all. But I couldn’t shake off a vague feeling that someone was looking over my shoulder. That had to be the Paxton-effect at work. The damned man had the capability to be everywhere.

I looked at the airline phone.

But not here!

I checked Sweeney’s old number on my cell, and dialed it into the airline phone. It was answered almost on the first ring tone.

“Yes?”

It was Sweeney’s voice and I was glad to hear it.

I said, “Can you speak?”

There was an intake of breath. “Shit! Is that you, Marty?”

“Yes.”

“Wait…” I heard the sound of footsteps on a hard floor. Then a door slammed. “Marty, what the fuck’s going down?” The background room tone told me he had moved into a very small room. Toilet or bathroom. “Where are you?”

“On a flight.”

“Coming here?”

“Nope. The other direction. What happened? Did you get to Spiro?”

“I did. But he bundled me here as soon as I told him who I was. Didn’t tell me why. He just said that I might be up shit creek if they lumped me in with you, and I was to sit tight and wait. What the fuck’s it all about?”

I let out a sigh that seemed to have been waiting around for ages. So Spiro had not completely sold us out, despite whatever pressure Paxton had put on him. “Where is he now?”

 “Who? Spiro?”

“Yes.”

“Christ knows. I thought you were him calling. He got me into this place then zapped off. He told me not to call you, or contact you in any way. Said it might open a can of worms. I see you got the message. Clever, huh?”

I said, “Yeah, very ambiguous. And full marks for inventiveness. But Spiro was probably right.”

“So what the fuck do I do now?”

What indeed? I said, “If I told you that I didn’t have the first clue, what would you say?”

“A joke, right?”

“I wish it was, old buddy. But it aint. I’m stuck on a plane headed…wait for it…back into Bazinque.”

“What!” I could picture his face creasing in a baffled frown. “Bazinque? You mean the Bazinque?”

I said, “Thank Christ there isn’t more than one of them.” I added, “Yes, that one.”

Sweeney actually laughed. Incredulously, he said, “For what?”

I said, “One thing at a time. Listen, pal. I don’t think they know you exist. Certainly not as part of me and Santana. And I guess Spiro figured that too. I don’t have a clue what’s in his mind, but I think he may have been trying to protect you. I’m not sure why. Either that or he just wants to keep you in his back pocket. Either way, I think you’re in the clear as things stand. More or less – “

“Who the hell’s they?” he cut in.

“It’d take too long to explain. I guess it boils down to you having two choices. Either you hang tight and wait for Spiro to do his thing, whatever his thing is. Or you go your own way. I might be able to use you myself, when I know the score. So that could be a third option. The point is, “I dashed on, pulling the threads together as they came to mind, “I won’t know anything until I get to Bazinque. They made me an offer that I couldn’t turn down. And I do mean couldn’t!”

I could hear him breathing, but he said nothing.

I went on, “It’s all a bit of a screw up, Sweeney. It came at us out of nowhere and hit us smack between the eyes. I, um…” I was running out of things to say. I wondered whether I should tell him about Santana. And I thought I better had. “They killed Santana.”

“What…” he breathed slowly.

“’Fraid so. They’re tough bastards. Spiro did you a favor, make the most of it.”

“Pancho? Dead?”

I could sympathize. I said, “Yeah. I’ll tell you about it when…” But I didn’t know how to finish that.

“When what, Marty?”

I gritted my teeth. “I don’t know. Let’s leave that up to Spiro. I can tell you one thing about that man, he’s pure gold. Maybe he’ll have a job for you.” I had another thought. “Maybe he wants you for the Libyan thing.”

“Without you? You’re nuts! I’m not a commander, f’crissakes. I just follow orders.”

I grunted. “Well, here’s one to follow. Sit tight and do what Spiro tells you to do.”

“That’s it?” he spluttered.” Sit tight?”

I said, “Unless you want to go your own way. But that’s all I’ve got, buddy. Right at the moment I’m out of options”