Authors: Larry Johns
Tags: #Adventure, #Thriller
A Place of Bones
Copyright © Larry Johns 1981.
The right of Larry Johns to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Central Africa has a body odor all of its own, especially at daybreak. It can be pleasing if you want it to be, the reverse if you don’t. Heavy floral scents mixed with the pungency of rotting vegetation, plus the ever-present and therefore unremarkable hint of poorly-managed sanitation. All of which translates easily into soured humanity basted with decaying dreams.
The smell is there to remind you that whatever you’re cooking up, you still have to get it out of the pot.
Of the three men waiting in the airport controller’s office, two were well used to the smell of Africa, and liked it. The third wasn’t, and didn’t.
The early morning sun slatted horizontally in the open windows as sharply defined columns of crimson light, reminding at least one of the men of filtered theatre spotlights. Outside the windows, so still was the air, the cicadas and the crickets could be heard whirring and rustling amongst the acacia bushes that were the airport controller’s pride. On this particular Brazzaville morning, however; and not simply because the time stood at five-thirty a.m., well before office hours, the controller was not himself in residence behind his desk - though he was somewhere in the building. Instead, his swivel chair was occupied by an expensively-suited man –
- whose cadaverous features had earned him the nickname “D.H.” At least amongst his subordinates the initials stood for a studiously unkind “Death’s Head” The fact that his actual name was Denzil Hart, and that he was a head of department, had only providential links with the roots of the contraction; though it certainly smoothed a path that could otherwise have been bumpy. The rest of the world, however, and in particular the world of Intelligence, where actual given names were avoided, knew him as “Brown”. His was the voice of M.I.6 for the entire Middle East.
Well-bred, well-educated, he possessed the easy drawling tone of one who could appear slightly contemptuous of those around him. Even when the opposite might have been true. Which was not often.
On this day, however, Brown appeared exactly as he was; relaxed and in command - they were committed now to an action that had been agreed upon at the highest possible levels, and the shooting script had been written in ink of the most indelible kind. For most intents and purposes one only had to raise the clapper board and call: Roll ‘em!
Brown allowed a taut smile to pick at his features - his smiles, when he chose to smile at all, were always taut, theatrical affairs - as, from way off to the north, the unmistakable sound of an approaching jetliner insinuated itself upon the soundtrack of that West African dawn. Aware that the other two men were watching him, if surreptitiously, Brown leant forward slightly to study the still dark-shadowed
sky with a kind of unqualified curiosity, as if the approaching aircraft and all it signified was of secondary interest to him. The unspoken message was that he, at least, was confident in the knowledge of what the coming day would offer.
One of the other men, a square-shouldered individual with a face as angular as the administration building itself, and wearing a loose-fitting safari suit and open-toed sandals, gave up trying to gauge, and cater for, Brown’s mood. He glanced at his watch. “On time, by Christ!” he said grittily. He glanced at the third member of the trio. “Is that a bloody miracle, or what?” Frank Weir,
an ex guards officer,
immediately regretted the remark. It was rhetoric, and Weir hated rhetoric. And he wondered whether this damned business was playing on his mind more than he had thought.
Ian Mackinson, seated near the door, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, his crossed legs stretched out in front of him, flicked a glance at the clock on the wall - upon which the airport controller had tagged a printed sign that read: “Looking will not make me go any faster!” - nodded briefly, but said nothing. Of all the “production staff” connected with the impending drama, he alone was experiencing deep reservations about the methods DH was about to employ.
Mackinson was the West Africa station head and this was his domain; all 900,000 square miles of it. DH, certainly, was considerably further up the S.I.S chain of command but, with his main office in the Thamesside Century House H.Q. of M.I.6, he was much less qualified in his knowledge of Africa and African events. Also, Mackinson knew mercenaries; he knew that nothing connected with mercenary activities ever panned out according to even the most rigorous scripting. The
drawing board was one thing, but translating even the best thought-out schemes into hard facts, particularly here in Africa, was something else again. And in the end, as ever, it would be left for him to sort out the tangle. It was an equation that the “head office” planners, in their sweet-smelling London offices, constantly failed to appreciate. Mackinson might have felt easier in his mind had there been a viable “plan B” in place. But no such plan existed, despite Mackinson’s many attempts to cover that angle.
From somewhere over in the terminal building, 500 yards from the office window, a tannoy bleated out its soft, indecipherable message, and as if this were a cue, the hubbub of an airport making ready to receive its first incoming flight of the day swelled to stain the peace. The cicadas and the crickets, apparently recognizing that the struggle was now unequal, gave up and fell silent. The approaching aircraft, still a mile short of the runway, swung left into its landing pattern, the rising sun glinting redly on its angled wings.
“Check with Graham,” murmured Brown, flicking a glance at Weir.
Weir lifted his transceiver to his head. “All set on the pan?” Weir was a deal more laid back about the whole thing than Ian Mackinson. But he could afford to be; he was not a planner. That particular buck stopped many miles from his door. And, for once, he did not begrudge Mackinson his local seniority. Quite the reverse. He was delighted to be nothing more than a dogsbody on
“All set,” came the metallic reply.
From his seat at the controller’s desk, Brown said, “Remind him. No fuss.”
Weir nodded and pressed the transmit button. “A clean job, Graham. No fuss.”
“Yes, yes,” replied the voice impatiently. “Have no fear.”
Weir glanced at Brown, who nodded, apparently satisfied that the man over in the terminal building realized the importance of what he had to do, and the way he had to do it. Nevertheless, Weir spoke again into the W/T. “It’s your arse for breakfast, Doug!”
There was no reply.
Brown grunted noncommittally. “Now Simmons.”
Weir changed channels on the handset. “How’re our Chinese friends, Herbie?”
There was no immediate reply. Weir leant forward in his seat and peered out over the taxiing area. He repeated his question into the W/T. Then the tiny loudspeaker crackled and another voice, apparently whispering, answered. “Position two. No change. The flight has just been announced.”
“We heard it,” said Weir. “Let me know if they start to get edgy. And tell me if they don’t actually announce the spot check.”
The whispering voice chuckled. “Two
there, Pete, old son. I assume the latter refers to the airport people as opposed to the Chinese.”
Weir clucked his tongue and looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Just stay alert.”
“As you command, skipper,” said the voice. “Lert, out!”
Weir allowed the W/T to fall on its strap. “Bloody comic!” he said to no one in particular.
Brown rose up and walked to the window. He watched the aircraft sinking lower in the sky. He wished he had his camera with him; this sunrise was quite the most spectacular he had witnessed since his arrival well over a week ago. Even as he looked, the canopy overhead lost its depth, turned a radiant pink, then a translucent yellow. Now it was one of the crispest blues he could imagine, He lowered his gaze to the horizon. There, it was still crimson; like a Turner watercolor, with the sun shimmering on what could have been a bed of spun silk. It really was quite beautiful. How could it be that a landscape capable of such magnificence, he wondered, remind him of passing downwind of the public toilets on a walk through Holland Park?
At his back, Mackinson said, “Just so long as Jo-burg has its facts straight.” Mackinson was aware that he was trundling over well-trodden ground; that such observations were academic now. But as second in command, if only for this current operation, such was his function, his job.
Brown made no pretense at stifling a sigh. He did not turn. He wanted to see the sunrise to its conclusion. He said, “When was the last time Eric Walton made a mistake.” It was not a question. Perhaps the first time he had responded to that particular line of reasoning, it had been. But not any more.
“All the same,” Mackinson persisted. “It only needs one of them to realize what we’re up to. South Africa is sniffing at us like bloodhounds, despite the New Order. Or probably
of it. And there’s that new report from Washington.”
Brown sighed again. He turned and looked Mackinson square in the eyes.
Okay, let’s go over it again!
“The Americans know nothing,” he said, his tone dripping undisguised forbearance. “And they would not be interested in any case. There’s nothing for them here. As for South Africa...well, it’s a case of nobody liking a fairy when she’s forty.” Brown allowed himself a small grin of self-appreciation for that one. Back in the
world he dabbled in amateur operatics and had sung that song on more than one occasion. He began to whistle it to himself now; softly, more breath than tune, as the sun finally shook itself clear of Mother Earth. The horizon lost its color. In fact, in the space of those few seconds, the whole picture had changed. Now there was nothing out there but trees, half-completed buildings, ugly structures and car headlights among the shadows; and even these were flicking off one by one. The ambience, now, matched the view. Brown turned, the moment of magic over.
“You worry too much,” he admonished Mackinson.
And too bloody often
! he added to himself. “The girl is safe under Walton’s wing. And she is the key. As long as we don’t touch her we have an operation. Besides,” he added, “the man is a mercenary, is he not? And mercenaries work for hard cash. Her Majesty’s government is parting with a lot of the stuff. We may not even have to mention the girl.”
Mackinson had never been convinced by that argument. “There are mercenaries, and there are mercenaries, sir.” He added, “with respect. This man is not run-of-the-mill. He’s a much-decorated veteran. And still an officer.” He glanced at the thick file on the desk in front of Brown and wondered if the man had actually read it. “But it’s not just him. It’s everything else. We’re still not secure here, sir. With my hand on my heart I can’t tell you otherwise. I wish I could!”
Brown nodded, his expression mixed.
Which is precisely why I am here!
“Mackinson,” he said patiently, “The minute we have this man in Zaire, we are home and dry. “ He nodded vaguely towards the window. “And that moment will occur the instant the wheels of that aircraft touch tarmac.
what we must concentrate on. Nothing else!” He walked back to his seat. “The die is cast now. Okay?” The last word had a good measure of heavy censure in it.
Mackinson stifled a sigh of his own. This was head office wisdom at its most dangerous. However, despite everything, he allowed himself a moment of private satisfaction. The saving grace was that Mackinson had made his protests in company of others. All the way down the line. So, if push came to shove...
The tract of solid clay amid the swamplands of Zaire, north-east of the confluence of the Zaire and Lulanga rivers, currently occupied by an assortment of vine-choked and rotting portacabins known to mercenary soldiers since 1962 as Camp-One, has had at least three variously documented tenants. The earliest of these, according to the diaries of one Abraham Smart (1789-1852), an American adventurer and would-be elephant hunter, was an Omani slaver called Mohammed Pasha, who used the place as a staging post where he would assemble and fetter his merchandise prior to the long trek westward to the Bay of Benin.
Pasha was perhaps the most daring, the most prolific of all the 18th century slave traders, sometimes force-marching upwards of 3,000 souls from the place that came to be known as Kanyamifupa: “The Place of Bones.”
How Pasha came upon Kanyamifupa in the first place is a matter for conjecture though it can reasonably be assumed that he was aware of the forbidding awe in which the local tribes held the rain forests in general and, in particular, the swamplands. He certainly used this knowledge to his best advantage.
Smart records that after an attack by pygmies using poisoned darts and arrows in which fifty of his original column of some sixty black porters and six whites were killed, the survivors, stripped of everything except that which they had strapped to their persons, which could not have been much, and without the precious compasses: “...and with not one ounce of dry powder between us...” happened upon one of Pasha’s cutting-out expeditions led, luckily for Smart and the others, by Pasha himself.
Pasha, an inordinately well-educated and westernized individual despite his calling, agreed to accept Smart’s promissory note for two thousand pounds, payable in silver, in return for providing safe conduct back to the coast in company, Smart writes : “...with more slaves than could cherries be counted on the tree...”