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Authors: Larry Johns

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BOOK: Place of Bones
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“Right,” I began, “here’s how it is as of this moment. We are now under the orders of South Africa.” I checked for reaction. Piet and Augarde, of course, did not need telling. Bjoran, squeezed in a corner at the foot of my bunk, raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Brook and the two section leaders displayed no changes at all. They just waited.

“The Chinese, plus the chopper pilot, are in the ammo store. The door is bolted, and will remain bolted until I say otherwise.”

Minimal reaction. I felt like passing some remark about how impressed I was at their storm of indifference. But I didn’t. “Money,” I went on. “As of now we are all on a fifty percent increase. Payable, as before, in ten-tola gold bars.”

I noticed that Bjoran opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind and closed it again, his face an even mixture of interest and anticipation. Augarde looked thoughtful, whilst Brook had his lips pursed as if whistling some silent lament. The two section leaders, at this point, were smiling. Then, out of nowhere, Brook sat up stiffly as if something had just sunk in. “Tha - at’s better,” he said, drawing the words out.

Everyone turned to look at him. “Well, hell,” he went on, glancing around, “S.A. money is better than chink money, any day of the week.” His expression said: It’s common knowledge!

Augarde smiled and shook his head whilst Bjoran, up against a way of thinking totally alien to his own, seemed at a loss. He shrugged. “Money’s money.”

Augarde raised a finger. “There’s a new target, is there, sir?”

“Right. There’s also a new time schedule. It will all be over in a matter of days, not weeks. Another advantage, if you consider a short, highly paid contract an advantage, is that each of you - us - is offered permanent employment with the South African armed forces, which comes with a full amnesty at least from
them.”
I turned to Brook. “I guess that’ll fill a hole in your life, eh, sergeant?”

His face lit up. “Christ, sir! Is that gen?”

I nodded. “It is.” Brook sat back, his mind obviously toying with the thoughts of rejoining regimental life, to which, ideally, he was most suited. The two section leaders seemed happy enough. And why not? Bjoran’s reaction to the news, I could have anticipated. “Stuff it!” he said offhandedly.

“I said it was offered, Bjoran. I did not say it was obligatory.”

My implied sarcasm was lost on him. He nodded as if he thought I was being helpful. “Tha’s okay, den.”

“An observation,” said Augarde, raising the same finger.

“Go ahead.”

“Training, sir. We’re hardly into basics yet, and some of the boys are about as fit as my Aunt Fanny. And for sure we don’t have a real team yet.”

“I realize that,” I said. “So does South Africa. But these strikes do not call for minute attention to detail, or for any real tactics. The fitness angle we’ll just have to live with. The prime requisite is the ability to fire a gun. It’s blunderbuss stuff. Kill anything that moves, then get the hell out. The first target is president Motanga’s H.Q. in  Kinshasa. Our brief there is simply to kill the man himself. Shouldn’t be too difficult, training or no training. And if it’s of any interest to any of you, I took that same compound some years ago with less than sixty men.”

Shrugs and nods.

I went on, “We’ll be choppered in and choppered out. I’m told that opposition should be minimal.” Their combined expressions at this last statement said:  Tell me the old, old story. I waved a vague arm in the arm. “That’s what they say. Anyway, it should be possible if we go in fast and hard.” It
was
the old, old story. But I had no other to give them.

Brook asked, “Do we have a lay-out of the place, sir?”

“Nothing wildly up to date. But it can’t have changed much since I was there.”

Swafi lifted an arm to get attention. “Yes, sergeant?”

“I bin there, suh.”

This was good news. “When?”

“Las’ year, suh.”

I nodded. “Fine. We’ll get together later. Now, the second strike, and this is the one we
really
have to worry about, because we’re going to have all the opposition here, that we didn’t get in Kinshasa.” I waited a moment to let that sink in. “The odds on this second strike will be something like ten-to-one in their favor, but it’s not going to be head-to-head.” I rushed on, “It’s hit-and-run. Just enough to make them scatter.”

“Scatter?” said Augarde with a half smile, “At ten-to-one odds?”

Piet spoke up then. “By that time they will all know that Motanga’s had it. They will have no heart to fight. Also, they’ll not be expecting us. We’ll chopper out of Kinshasa high, headed west, in full view of the border radar stations. Then we come low and sweep south and east over Matadi and Kikwit.”

I took over. “We go through their camp like a dose of salts. Once, straight through. Firing all the way. Like I say, blunderbuss stuff. Then we get out. The rest will be up to other people...”

 

 

TWELVE

 

 

Jean-Paul Winterhoek stood at the window of the library, his arms folded loosely across his chest. It was the time of the afternoon siesta and most of the household was still. In the garden, the leaves on the trees shifted restlessly to an eddying breeze. The cicadas and crickets, also, were unusually subdued. So much so that he could just hear the radio in the servants quarters playing that odd West African music they liked so much to listen to. However, carried towards the main house on the indecisive breeze, the sound was neither constant, nor intrusive. Indeed, their bungalow was close to the perimeter wall, some forty paces from the library window, and shielded from it by the trees and bushes. It was odd, none the less, Winterhoek realized, how used he had grown to the insect noises. He had spent some hours standing at that window, pondering his responsibilities and formulating strategies, more often than not at that same time of day. At first, the constant chirruping had annoyed him. Now, when it was not there, he missed it.

He yawned. It was an exhalation of tension rather than an indication of tiredness. He turned from the window at the very moment that Jan Bluthen, his face ashen, portentous of disaster, burst into the room. Winterhoek’s heart see-sawed in his chest. Not bad news!  Not so soon.

“What is it, major?” Winterhoek demanded, suddenly smitten with a stale, old feeling.

“The Americans, sir. They are in Kinshasa!”

“In Kinshasa?” repeated Winterhoek, for the moment unable to assimilate the Americans with anything connected to the operation. “Doing what?”

Bluthen spoke with a breathless urgency. “With Motanga, sir. No less a person than Arnold Hewes. He - “

“Hewes?” cut in Winterhoek. “But what - “

Bluthen could not contain his own interruption. “The subject is our operation, sir. But it’s worse than...than...”

“What, man!  What?” Bluthen’s state of mind was contagious. Winterhoek threw his arms up in an exasperated appeal.

Bluthen sucked in a steadying breath then began to speak rapidly, sometimes slurring words together in his haste to get them said. “There was a proposition, after which Motanga called a meeting of his staff and advisors to discuss it. And he
will
agree, sir, our man is certain of it..It
has
been agreed. Except that Motanga has yet to return his decision to the American. They discuss it at this very moment, as we speak! Our man excused himself for long enough to call us. There is a bomb.”  He clucked his tongue. “No, not a bomb. Some kind of gas, a nerve gas. Lethal. The intention is to use it over the Kanyamifupa jungles. And it will be done tomorrow. Our man swears it!  Tomorrow Motanga will send these Americans - scientists, apparently there are two of them with Hewes - out in a helicopter and every human being in those jungles will die.”

Winterhoek felt himself sway involuntarily and he reached for the support of a nearby chair. “Oh, my God!”

“It’s over, sir. Finished!  All for nothing. Too late...too late.”

Winterhoek stepped around the chair and sank into it tiredly. “Gas!” he breathed, “Are you - ” He did not complete his question. He knew that Bluthen would not report such news if he were not certain of it.

Bluthen simply stood there, arms limp by his sides, defeated, utterly spent.

“All this time,” Winterhoek muttered grimly, “All this effort.” He thought of Walton and his stomach heaved. “Waste...such waste. And in the final seconds.” Suddenly he stiffened. “Tomorrow? Are you sure? Not
tonight!”

“Tomorrow, sir.”  Bluthen’s tone was dull now, lifeless. “Motanga’s cabinet discuss now only the price the Americans demand for their...for their
favor!
The actual operation has been agreed upon. They - “

“Dammit, man! It may yet not be too late, at least to stoke the fire, if not
fan
it!” He rose from the seat and paced back to the window. “What does tomorrow
mean
, major? Early? Late? What?”

Bluthen frowned uncomprehendingly. “It will be early, sir. It
has
to be. Soon after first light. It will take them time to - “

“Time!” Winterhoek cut in obliquely. “Yes, it will take them time.” He turned sharply, crossed the room to the desk, and snatched up the telephone. He began to dial.

Bluthen had a sudden inkling of what was in his mind. As if mesmerized he counted the turns of the dial...7...8...9... The call was to somewhere beyond the borders of the Congo, then. South Africa, perhaps. Or Sudan?  He waited.

“Ah, Alan,” said Winterhoek briskly.

Sudan, then, thought Bluthen. Of course!

“Jean-Paul here...No, no time now, Alan. Get on to Martin Bhatia. Tell him I must speak to president Nyrevy personally, and immediately. It’s life or death for the operation, Alan. I don’t care what it takes, but I
must
be speaking to the president within the hour; wherever he is, whatever he is doing...No, Alan, nothing. Just arrange it...Alan! Do not waste time talking. Do it
now!
...Very well. Good-bye.” Winterhoek returned the handset to its rest and turned to Bluthen. “We may assume, then, that Motanga will not be leaving his command centre.”  This was not couched as a question. None the less, Bluthen nodded.

“Yes, sir. Now, of all times, he would - “

“Exactly...” Winterhoek snatched a glance at his watch. Distractedly, he said, “It could be...it could be.” He was calculating flight times. “Six hours to Camp-One. Perhaps the same to Kinshasa. Twelve hours, then.” Again he peered at his watch, his lips moving soundlessly. Then he said, “Ten in the morning. Think, major, if you were Motanga, how soon would you,
could
you, get this operation underway?”

Bluthen shrugged. “Shortly after first light, sir. I would not attempt it at night.”

Winterhoek nodded. “Of course you wouldn’t. Then you’d sit in your command centre awaiting developments, wringing your grubby little hands in eager anticipation. And you would be right there...right
there!”
He tapped the desk top with a stiff finger several times. “If only we could touch the match to the fuse.” He was aware that his hands were trembling slightly. He forced his mind to slow down. Nothing was possible without contact with Nyrevy.

“What do you plan, sir?” Bluthen asked, caught between dull acceptance of the inevitable, and nameless excitement. “Surely there is no way to save it!”

“Is there
not!
One aircraft is all we need. Perhaps two. But no more than that. Camp-One is closer to the river than it is to the landing area, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” said Bluthen, “Colonel McCann stressed that he be allowed at least four hours to move his men out to the landing area.” He hunched a shoulder. “I just don’t see how we can do it.”

“But the river is much closer. Yes?”

“Yes, sir. But the river - “

“Not easy,” Winterhoek interrupted. “Yes, I know that. But no-one has yet mentioned
impossible!
  And they
must
do it!”

“All three hun...” Bluthen began incredulously.

“No. Just enough for a small to medium raid. With surprise on our side, this is all we need.”

Bluthen gave it a moment’s thought, weighing the time element. Then another thought struck him. “But the remainder, sir. We would have to warn - “

“No!” The exchange was more a cut and thrust fencing match than a conversation. “If colonel McCann once knew the truth he would waste precious time organizing a...well, something.” Winterhoek displayed his palms to Bluthen. “In any case, we must wait until I have spoken to Nyrevy.”

“But, surely,” Bluthen persisted, appalled at what Winterhoek was implying, “We could - “

“No!”  Winterhoek crashed a clenched fist hard onto the desk. Then again, more gently, more controlled. “No,” he smiled grimly. “Besides, we cannot contact McCann until the morning. An hour before dawn. He specified that contact time himself.”

Bluthen slowly relaxed his muscles as the freshly instilled tension left him. Winterhoek was correct, at least on that last point. Whatever Nyrevy had to say, McCann could not be reached by radio until one hour before dawn. And now Bluthen was uncertain of his misgivings. There would be casualties in any event.

Wordlessly now, each engrossed in his own thoughts, both men drifted to their usual places in the library of Casa Bianca; Winterhoek to the seat behind the desk, Bluthen to the window.

The minutes dragged by.

One of the servants entered the room some time later and inquired if the men required refreshment. Winterhoek waved the man out and the waiting continued. It was at about this time that the “mile-walker” lost his footing and his weapon; and when Brown was having a gloomy telephone conversation with his overlord in London; and when Chi Luang’s masters were instructing him to find out, at any cost, what had happened to their operation, and when, in Washington, where the clocks stood at thirty-four minutes past midday, Conrad Mitchell also waited. At the Crooked-”K” ranch, however, the president and his staff were at breakfast. It was a quiet, thoughtful affair, not much enjoyed by any of them. In fact, amongst all these protagonists, there were very few charitable thoughts indeed. It would not have impressed any of these people to learn that Karen McCann, the least significant of them all in terms of stature, yet the king-pin of most of their hopes and aspirations for much of the time, had cheered up considerably. Her stomach pains were not, as she had dreaded, a portend to her period, but had been purely and simply a result of hunger. She, Ryan and Isa, were playing cards on the veranda. Isa was losing every hand on purpose. Ryan was trying hard to win, but losing. Whilst Karen, despite everything, was enjoying herself in a way she had never done before.

Many miles away, at Casa Bianca, the telephone suddenly jangled. Winterhoek snatched it up, his face alight. “Yes?...Ah, mister president. It is good of you to call...Yes, it is, I’m afraid. We must bring matters forward...Immediately!...” There was a long pause whilst Winterhoek listened. “The Americans, sir...”  Another long pause. “Thank you, sir. I will need only two...As soon as humanly possible, then...No, mister president, I think that would be too late. If they could take off...Yes, sir, I
do
understand that...Not at all, sir. But it is of the gravest importance  that...Yes, excellent, mister president...So do I sir...I will, immediately there is word...And you, sir. Good-bye.”

Winterhoek closed his eyes, turned his head upward as if offering a silent supplication, then he gently laid the handset back onto its rest. “The aircraft will be in the air before midnight.”

If there was excitement in the library of Casa Bianca, then it was of a dull, listless kind, drained of physical display. Bluthen merely nodded. He felt more like sleeping.

 

*

 

The sun disappeared and the air cooled rapidly. The trees and the land also cooled, but not, by their very substance, at the same rate as the air. This on-going imbalance in temperatures created an interaction. As the cooler air brushed the leaves and the branches, the mud and the water, so a vapor was created. Also, as the inter-action continued through the twilight period, low clouds began to form over the area of conflict. Fed and nurtured by the rising vapor, these clouds began to thicken and swell. And the more they grew in intensity and size, the more ravenous became their appetite for the life-giving moisture.

The atmospheric conditions, from Nature’s point of view, were perfect for the creation of one of the tropic’s most sadistic tormentor of man.

A wind, even a slight breeze, would have proved a panacea. But the air, aside from the gentle, almost imperceptible upwards motion - abeyance to the natural law which affirms that warm air must rise - was
laterally
still.

Shortly after the last vestige of daylight had left the sky these clouds joined hands, then bodies, until they were no longer individual clouds, but a solid, uniform blanket of thick vapor that grew in all directions. It was as if a lid had been placed over the rain forests. A lid that allowed no further heat-loss to the sky. And yet, beneath this
lid
, the imbalance between air and ground temperatures continued apace. And so the creep-back to earth began. A creep-back, that was, of the hot, wet air.

Shortly before midnight the air around and amongst the trees and the swamplands became so moisture-saturated that a reverse effect occurred. The air now returned its moisture to the solids. The droplets seemed to appear from nowhere. One instant a leaf would be seemingly dry, then, the next, it would be
dripping
wet. But it was not just leaves. It was everything touched by the air; ground, ferns, branches, solid metal...and human skin.

Modern-day science calls this phenomenon “humidity.” The African tribes-people of the Congo Basin - The Great Rift Valley - call it
The Devil’s Breath.

The men of Camp-One called it everything.

 

*

 

Augarde came immediately awake.

At first he was conscious only of the cloying heat and the rivulets of sweat that coursed periodically down his naked torso and onto a blanket that was already a sodden mess beneath him. Then he felt surprise that he had fallen asleep at all. He would have laid odds against it. He had, in fact, resigned himself to a night of simply laying there, sweating, and trying to draw breath in an atmosphere that was as much moisture as it was air. Survival of the elements had been on his mind. Sleep, had not. And yet he must have slept.

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