Authors: Larry Johns
Tags: #Adventure, #Thriller
The president was also aware that the feud between them must take a back seat for the time being.. “A proposition? For Aaron Motanga?”
“Yes, sir. It pains me to say so, but the British stole a march on us. Now we can even the score. We can prove to Motanga that his deal with the British is doomed to certain failure. So we offer him a bird that can kill two worms; one for us, and one for him.”
“And what is that?”
Mitchell sucked in a breath, held it, then let it out. “MSB2Z, sir.”
Two hours later Mitchell was still waiting to be called back. He glanced at his watch; ten-o-clock! How long did they
to discuss it?
Whilst, half way around the world from either Washington or the president’s retreat, Eric Walton also glanced at his watch; the law pertaining to the ITZS dictating that it should display: five p.m. Dusk was evident in the Transvaal sky. “Come on, you pair!” Walton growled impatiently. He lifted his head and peered out over the bushes at the rim of the shallow dip, halfway down the slope above Sasolburg Lake. In that dip, up to God knew what, were Karen McCann and Martin something-or-other, the boy she had ejected from her flat that time a million years ago. And they had been there well over an hour already!
The boy, Walton guessed, correctly, had used that particular “nest” before. It was well off the beaten track down by the lake and invisible from it unless you climbed the incline and fell into it; which the inventive lad had made a good show of doing. Certainly the act had fooled Karen McCann. Walton shook his head. Not only was the girl as fickle as the day was long, she was also naive into the bargain. “Or,” he said, as he sank back to the grass, “are you a damn sight cleverer than we all think you are?”
The drive out to Sasolburg Lake, one of Jo-burg’s local beauty spots, had been a welcome change from the routine of drudgery Walton had been subjected to recently. But that welcome was now wearing thin. The sun was well down now, and up on the ridge where he had secreted himself, the breeze carried in it the promise of a cold night. He wished he had brought his jacket from the car. But, hell fire! it had been a scorcher when the pair of them had started their slow, deep-conversationed walk from the car park.
Staying out of sight had been no problem for Walton, for Sasolburg was surrounded by bush-covered slopes all the way down to the Val Dam, and there had been plenty of trippers about, which had probably, he mused, prompted Martin to take his time in reaching the battleground. Staying warm had been even less of a problem...then! Now, Walton had to massage his arms to stave off the goose pimples.
And why this Martin character? he thought. That other boy, what was his name? Terry? That was it. He was better-looking by a mile and a half, and less devious by a hundred!
“Sweet Jesus!” Walton said aloud, raising his eyes to the heavens. He had been on the poxy job for so long now; he was beginning to take a personal interest in the damned girl’s love life!
Ten minutes later, with the sun already dipping its nose into the western horizon, he heard - at bloody last! - the sound of laughing voices. He sat up and squinted through the bush. “I hope you both think it was worth it,” he whispered as they ran hand in hand down the slope to the path. “Because
damn well don’t!”
He slipped back over the ridge after making certain they were headed in the right direction, and then he ran briskly - to get his circulation going again - two hundred yards along the blind side of the slope. Then he peered back over the ridge. They were still coming. He ducked back out of sight and made it to the car park well before the couple was even in sight. He started up his car and backed out the main gate and onto the road, pulling up onto the verge a hundred yards or so in the Jo-burg direction. Martin’s car bounced into sight some minutes later, its headlights - now needed - weaving drunkenly in the sky.
The trip back to Johannesburg took longer than it might have done because traffic was heavier than usual. Everyone, it seemed to Walton, had spent that glorious day out in the bush. He turned on the radio and tuned to a local news station, which was currently conducting a phone-in program. Walton had grown to like these programs over the past eon, where they once left him cold. In fact, he realized several of his erstwhile likes and dislikes had been turned on end of late. He listened to some housewife of indeterminate creed telling the D.J. that she hoped Ms Ramphele would pull it off. Then a man talked about the forthcoming cricket test with England. It was an interesting program. Walton felt his stomach rumble and realized he was hungry. He hoped the lovebirds would pull in somewhere for a sandwich. They did not. Martin, the kiss-and-run merchant he obviously was, took her straight back to her flat. There was some half-hearted snogging in the front seat. Then, in a blaze of glory, Martin roared off into the night, leaving Karen standing forlornly on the step, watching him go. She stayed there until his tail lights disappeared, then, somewhat wistfully, Walton guessed, stepped into the house. Walton felt personally let down. “Bastard!” he hissed, turning the radio off, and the bug’s receiver on. He waited to hear her footsteps enter the flat, hoping against hope that the “The Voice” would be out of favor tonight. The carrier wave hissed emptily.
He glanced at his watch. Another hour or so and he could kiss another brain-numbing day goodbye. He sighed. How long was this travesty to his years of experience going to last? Was he doomed to chase around after snot-nosed kids for the rest of his life!
Still no sound from the flat. He frowned. “Come on, girl!” He peered up at the window. Still in darkness. A couple wandered out of a side street and ambled past the car. They were discussing something they had eaten lately. They moved on without a second glance at Walton.
Still nothing from the flat.
He looked at his watch again, his forehead furrowing. Five minutes? About that. What the hell was she doing? Ah! he thought, she’s stopped in to chat with someone on the way up; there were several other students in the building. Maybe she’d gone in for a coffee and a chinwag. She was entitled. All the same...he leant forward and turned the receiver up full, until the ticking of a clock up there sounded like the cracking of a whip, and the carrier wave hissed angrily. Nothing. He brought the volume back down and craned his neck out the window to see the window. Still dark. But there was a light showing in a downstairs flat. That was where she would be. No other explanation. He waited.
He suddenly felt uneasy. This was all wrong. But
was it all wrong? The blasted girl had stopped in for a chat, for Christ’s sake! Where was the harm in that?
The clock ticked persistently in the background.
Then it happened.
Walton was again leaning out the window, studying each window of the building, when the passenger door opened. Walton turned. Vaguely, he saw the figure of a man. He did not see the pressurized can in his hand. But he did see, and breathe, the jet of white gas that puffed into his face. He felt his throat close immediately, and his chest tightened in a vice. He tried to breathe, but couldn’t. He tried to move, but couldn’t. For a split instant he was able to realize what was happening to him.
Then there was nothing.
Dab Clancey outlived Walton by an hour. But the manner of his death was the same; a stranger and a puff of white gas that smelt of garlic. Then oblivion. By midnight Clancey’s body was settling into the mud at the bottom of the Karm reservoir, whilst Walton’s remains, oddly enough, made the return trip to the Sasolburg Lake. A surfeit of scrap metal ensured that neither man would ever be seen again in any recognizable form.
There were three men in the room with the President of the United States; Arnold Hewes, Crawford Jenzano and Dean Lindstrop. All, including the president who sat in front of the amplifone that had been placed on the coffee table, wore varying styles of night attire beneath the yellow, toweling “Crooked-K Ranch” dressing gowns. All thoughts of a return to bed had been discounted, and now it was far too late in the morning to do so in any case. And the fact that they were still in their night clothes, when the clock on the wall showed the hour as ten-thirty Eastern Standard Time, occurred to none of them.
“Crooked-K Ranch” was the name the president had bestowed upon his mountain retreat. The place was not a ranch. There were horses, but these were not for rounding up non-existent longhorns; they were for pleasure purposes only. The main house of the Crooked-K boasted 12 bedrooms, each en-suite; 2 rambling lounges - one containing locally-crafted oak furniture, the other, in which the three men now were, ultra-modern from carpet to ceiling; two kitchens with almost innumerable utility rooms adjoining; an indoor swimming pool and sauna bath; a small gymnasium and a huge patio. There were other rooms into which the president had never so much as set foot.
The president, apart from being a president, was also a multi-millionaire (and nothing wrong with that!). He had worked for every cent he had. His hair was all his own and so were his teeth. His face had a benign look to it and he could smile easily. He was not the youngest President of the United States the world had ever seen, but he was close to that. He reached out and flicked the amplifone to “Off." He - they, actually - via the magic of the amplifone, had been talking to a close presidential advisor; one of at least ten such calls since the one from Conrad Mitchell so early that morning.
“What d’you think, Arn?” Arnold Hewes was the president’s first secretary and a close friend.
Hewes, himself a benign sort of man of medium height and build, tapped his cigar on the rim of the fruit-bowl-sized ashtray. “I hate to say this, mister president, but I go along with the hard line. And it’s not just because everyone else out there appears to do so. It’s a reasonable solution to an unreasonable problem.”
The president nodded and turned to Dean Lindstrom, his political advisor. “And you, Dean?”
Lindstrom was a tall man; six-six in bare feet. And he moved,
he moved, accordingly; slowly and carefully, and with an almost permanent, though unconscious, stoop. His right cheek bore the scar of a wound he had suffered during the evacuation from Saigon. He was an odd bedfellow for someone who was against that conflict in the first place. “I don’t know, sir,” he said quietly. “Sorry, mister president, but I just don’t know. I’ll need more time to figure it out.
right; it does seem a good solution, and a cheap one.” He shrugged and added, “Relatively. But, as God’s my witness, I don’t like the thoughts of letting MSB2Z out of its cage.”
The president smiled grimly. “How about you, Crawford?”
Crawford Jenzano was Italian by birth and American by adoption. He was forty-six years old and held the post of Press Secretary. He looked like an Italian and his accent confirmed this. “I’m with Arnie, sir. The terrain is about as perfect as it could be, and there’ll be no-one out there
these mercenaries. Not within a hundred miles.”
Lindstrom scoffed. “There’s
to be someone else out there! Natives, someone, for God’s sake!” He added, “They have pygmies in that part of the world, don’t they?” It was more a statement that a question.
Quietly, the president said, “They might well do, Dean. But it is doubtful.”
“Doubtful,” repeated Lindstrom glumly, looking away.
Hewes pushed in. “A single overflight would do it, sir. I’ve been through MSB2Z a hundred times with Clyde Lauter. If the stuff only half matches his expectations...” He let that hang in the air, but turned to Lindstrom. “Pygmies, f’r chrissakes!” he scoffed.
Lindstrom did not rise to the jibe.
“So have I, Arn,” said the president, remembering the other heated debates. “I know all the arguments; no danger to flora and fauna; no after effects to worry about; half-lives, and all that. The question is - do we risk it now.”
Dean Lindstrom climbed down off his fence long enough to say, “I do know, however, that we cannot allow another bloodbath in Central Africa. But is there no other way?”
Hewes stared at him. “You tell
Dean. Is there?”
Lindstrom mumbled something the others did not catch and turned to look out the window. Jenzano said, “I, for one, don’t think so.”
,” corrected the president, indicating the amplifone.
Hewes said, “Well, I see no harm in asking the man.”
“Who?” asked the president. “Aaron Motanga?”
“Sure,” Hewes nodded. “If he turns us down on this, like he did the other thing, then we’ve all been wasting out time here. But let’s at least moot the subject.” Hewes knew that a vote outcome had to be unanimous, so had purposely softened his line to draw Lindstrom in. And it worked. Lindstrom turned, his face less sullen.
“We could certainly do that, mister president.”
The president looked at him. He had been sufficiently preoccupied to miss Hewes’ subtle side-stepping. “And if he agrees?”
Lindstrom sighed. He knew he was outnumbered and outgunned now. However, he had made his small protest. He shrugged. “Then I guess I’d go along.”
The president slapped his knee. “Okay! Now, for the last time. A vote.”
“Yes,” said Arnold Hewes.
“Of course,” said Jenzano.
“I guess,” said Lindstrom, rising out of his seat and stepping over to the window. Behind his back, Hewes winked at Jenzano, who replied similarly. The president was already tapping Mitchell’s Washington number into the amplifone. There was a single ring then Mitchell’s voice came into the room.
“Mitch. It’s me.”
“Yes, mister president. What have you decided?”
“How would this thing be achieved logistically?”
No hesitation. “Three canisters of MSB2Z are being prepared in Alaska at this moment. They can be at Sutton Field in forty-eight hours, along with two scientists of general Lauter’s staff. After that it’ll be down to how fast you can get your emissary over there, sir.”
“Hang on, Mitch.” The president pressed the “hold” button and turned to the others. “The bastard had it all set up!”
Hewes scoffed. “Well, sir, he would, wouldn’t he? On the ball, is our mister iron-pants. We all
his middle name is bastard! And does it make any difference? I say no.”
Jenzano and Lindstrom nodded in unison.
The president shook his head at the sheer audacity of the man. Then he shrugged. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Okay. Will you go, Arn?”
Hewes nodded. “If you think I’m the man for the job, mister president.”
The president glanced at the other two. “I think so, don’t you?”
Jenzano said, “Absolutely.”
Lindstrom turned again to the window. Over his shoulder he said, “No question.”
The president pressed the button. “Mitch?”
“I’m still here, sir.”
“We’ll go ahead. Arnold Hewes will be ready to leave the minute you clear it all away.”
Over by the window, Lindstrom breathed, “I hope to God we’re all as smart as we think we are.”
Joseph Kimba, the man Augarde had recommended and who was now getting a kick out of being called corporal, pointed up at the low swirling clouds and he nodded at the world in general like he was some kind of sage. I grunted. So far that day the rain had not been a problem and the trip out along the west track had been fairly easy. I had a feeling that if those clouds did break, the trip back in to Camp-One would be harder. I said, “Well, corporal, you don’t get rain forests without rain.”
Kimba’s expression, though he obviously tried to mask it, told me that that observation had been received with the contempt even
knew it deserved. But I was not feeling up to sage standards. The clouds worried me. Not so much for the ton upon ton of unleashable moisture contained within them - though that would become pertinent later - but for the fact that they were quite simply clouds; and low ones at that. Treetop low. You don’t fly airplanes, even helicopters, in treetop-low clouds. Well, you could. But your chances of arriving at your destination would be pretty minimal. I nodded over to where the second jeep had been left in the elephant grass, its only visible part being the long radio aerial with its red pennant. “Get it under cover. The men, too.”
Kimba saluted smartly, something he did at every opportunity, valid or otherwise, and he snapped a crisp, “Yes, suh!” He turned and, like an extrovert mother hen, began to gather up his brood of seven panga-wielding Kangatzi, glancing periodically over his shoulder to make sure I was watching. Life was not easy with corporal Joseph Kimba.
I sat at the wheel of my vehicle and watched the madly swinging aerial weave a path through the grass, the engine note of his charge rising and falling like a musical saw in response to Kimba’s unsubtle footwork on the gas pedal. Then I checked my watch. The chopper was already overdue by some twenty minutes. Not surprising, but not good news either. And Piet Vryburg was a passenger on that chopper. I adjusted the fine-tune knob on the radio. Nothing except the crackling static caused by a distant lightning storm. I hoped that whoever was flying the aircraft would know enough to keep out of the worst of the weather. I also hoped they carried enough fuel for an extended holding pattern, for, sure as hell, there was nowhere else to put down, not within a hundred miles, and certainly not to the south-west - La Guardia country! I looked at the landing area the men had cleared, and at the smoke canister waiting ready. And it all looked about as useless as a hole in the grass could look on a day when the clouds brushed the tops of the trees.
Then it started to rain. Great! I fired up the jeep and pulled into the elephant grass, heading blindly for the trees.
What began as a drizzle, strengthened quickly to heavy rain in association with failing light. And a wind sprang up from nowhere. Soon, within minutes, and in a landscape as dark as a weakly moonlit night, it was a torrential downpour. The wind, confused and directionless, rose to a gale and the grape-sized pellets of water sliced obliquely over the ground, exploding like tiny grenades against the exposed tree trunks. I moved the party and the vehicles some fifty feet back into the forest, but still the rain-bearing wind found us. We caped up and settled down to wait.
Out in the open, the elephant grass, only barely visible through the dark torrent, undulated drunkenly, whipping this way and that, like seaweed at the mercy of strongly conflicting currents. The sound, for a time, was demoniac; a prolonged burst of enthusiastic applause from a million clapping hands and whistling mouths, overlaid with kettledrum thunderclaps and flashes of sizzling, ripping lightning. I sat in my jeep with my cape pulled up around my head and I just hoped to Christ that the pilot was up to it.
The jeep rocked to the buffeting and it grew darker and darker and for at least twenty minutes it was as black as night. I tried not to think about Piet Vryburg. Either the pilot knew his job, or he didn’t.
Then, quite suddenly, and in the usual fashion of a tropical storm, the wind eased and the rain fell vertically out of a lightening sky. I waited. There seemed no point in rushing back out into the open. A few minutes later the rain stopped and the sun again crashed down onto the elephant grass. We pulled ourselves together. I de-caped and turned the key in the ignition and the engine barked into life. The ground was now like a skidpan and the jeep was all over the place as I eased back out into the elephant grass. Kimba was doing his show-off thing again. His vehicle roared past me, hit a stone, turned a complete circle and came to a skittering halt. His men, all of them Kangatzi, fell about laughing. I figured, hoped, that would calm him down for a spell. Certainly, had I been one of his detail, I might have placed my panga where it would have inflicted the most pain. His attitude to the promotion had surprised even Augarde, who was already apologizing to me. I had shrugged it off, but it was beginning to grate. The only thing about it was that the Kangatzi seemed, for God alone knew what reason, to respect the man’s power, if not his personality - bricks in the grass notwithstanding. At all events, they did what he told them to do. And that, for the moment, was what mattered to me.
Eastwards, the sky was a rearing mountain of black, scudding cloud. Overhead and to the south and west, it was a clear blue, the sun burning down and already drawing billows of steamy mist from the saturated ground. I eased my jeep alongside the smoke canister and stopped. Then the men appeared, their boots making sucking noises in the mud. Kimba left his vehicle out in the grass. The capes were thrown down onto the cleared area of ground and the men, Kimba included, were soon squabbling over the peculiar dice game that seemed to fill the Kangatzi’s every off-duty moment.
I had chosen Kangatzi for the landing area duty for the simple reason that they would have to remain out there for some time. Not only were they almost immune from the Simba superstitions, they also had nowhere to run; except into trouble.