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Authors: Larry Johns

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BOOK: Place of Bones
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“What is it, sir?” asked Brook, as the fraughtness, the apparent immediacy of the moment ebbed slightly.

Vryburg, now set to act if needs be, explained what had happened. Then he told Brook to contact Kimba, out at the landing area, on the walkie-talkie.




I took the chance on a shade more throttle. The going was rough, but not as rough as the trip in with Piet. Now the problem was not so much an uneven track - for the mud was still firm over and around the rocks - as it was the ice-like texture of the top few centimeters. And, of course, speed. Jolting to death was not a likelihood this trip, sliding to death

“There it is!” Augarde cried.

was not actually visible. But a faint glimmer of its - their jeep’s - headlights did glow momentarily away to the left through the undergrowth. We were already in the “S’s”, then. Augarde added, “Could be dodgy, sir.”

I knew what he meant. If we had seen their lights, if only for that instant, then it was on the cards that they would have seen ours. And at some stage in the chase through the “S” bends, our two vehicles could be almost abreast of each other, though headed at opposing compass points. It could turn out to be a jousting pass. If I could have been absolutely certain of our
position in that snaking stretch of track, I could have stopped, doused our lights, and waited for them to come up on us. A single burst of fire would have stopped them. But I was
certain where we were. And to stop would be to lose the ground we had already gained on them. I called, “D’you recognize this stretch?”

“No, sir.”

The “stretch” came to an abrupt end, and the track swung sharply left, then right, then left again. These zig-zags had to be taken slowly, as the red markers were more often out of the headlights beam than in them. A mobile light would have cured that problem. If wishes were horses... I had to keep reminding myself that despite the need for speed, a miscalculation, of in some places less than half a meter, could prove fatal. No ditches, here, to slide into. Only certain death.

“Get ready to blast away,” I yelled. “If and when you see actual headlights, let loose a full clip. The driver’s side first.”

“Right,” Augarde acknowledged. Then, “There it is again!  Did you see it?  About eleven-o-clock. Way off.”

“Got other things on my mind.

Suddenly there were no more markers, just a solid wall of leaves and branches. I braked as gently as I could, the rubberless pedal biting into my bare foot. “Where?”

“Left, sir. I think.”

Cursing, I backed away from the wall of vegetation, swinging the wheel left and right to try to pick up another marker. Then another light flashed. Augarde had a torch!  “Yes, sir. Left, it is,” he called as the narrow beam picked out a flash of red paint.

I heaved the wheel over and let in the clutch. “For remembering the torch, you get a D.S.M.” The avenue of red splashes appeared in the headlights.

Augarde laughed. “Make that a V.C., would you, sir. They fetch more at auction.”

On we drove.

“Any sign?”

“No, sir. Not since. That was probably the first “S”. The loose one. If it was, then the tighties are on the way. What if we don’t get to them before the grass? One man and a handgun could bottle us up for ever!”

“Kimba has been alerted. I
He should be waiting at the other end. It’s
who’s bottled up.” That was my hope, at least. But, was Kimba awake? Had he bothered to leave his radio on stand-by?

“Then we’ve got them, sir.”

“Don’t tell me that, tell
I added, “It’s the big “if”.”

“Kimba’s probably asleep.”

He read my mind quite a lot, did Augarde. “Any signs?”

The track veered to the right now, tightly. But this time I was ready for it, though it needed some pretty fancy juggling to counter the skid.

“Nothing,” said Augarde.

“Keep me posted. If they - “

“There! Three-o-clock! It’s the first parallel!”

I nodded. I was oozing sweat and my hands kept slipping from the wheel. Several times, as the sweat found my eyes, I would be driving on memory alone. “Again!” called Augarde excitedly. “Shit! One-o-clock now. It’s the parallel, alright!”

I attempted to work out some kind of a strategy, as well as concentrate on the winding track and the flashing red markers. No easy task. Should I aim for the jousting pass, or should I simply try to catch up?  There were, at a guess, at least five guns in that jeep, which probably read five automatics. No,
Since the driver could hardly do both. Neither, of course, could I!  Four to one, then. Not good odds in a firefight that could conceivably be blind. Perhaps I ought to let them go for a while, ease off, let the parallels pass.

“Way back at six-o-clock now, sir. I’ll bet,,,yes, be buggered!  Coming back to five,,,four...We’ll be on them soon!

Or, I thought, they’ll be on

The track wavered a little, then disappeared right. I frantically searched my memory for some clue as to how far along that straight came the near-miss. That first parallel was like an elongated hour-glass. They would...

Ease it! Ease it!

On the hair-pin, the rear wheels, for lack of a moment’s concentration, lost their grip, then the front, and for several heart-stopping meters we were aquaplaning uncontrollably, the brakes and the wheel no more use than...

A tree loomed up and we hit it side on. But it saved us. I lost the wheel momentarily, then had it again, and out of the corner of my vision and my concentration I caught a glimpse of the other jeep’s lights, apparently converging on us. Then I saw the red flashes.


The noise of Augarde’s burst near deafened me. I felt several of the spent cases slap into my right shoulder. Then the windscreen in front of me turned opaque and I could see nothing of anything. And there was the smoke from Augarde’s fire to contend with, too. I slammed both bare feet hard on the brake and clutch pedals, let go the wheel, and grabbed for the other AK, as the air around our heads sang to the screech and whine of flying shells and the insane ripping of the richochet. But I was way too late to take part in that brief exchange.

Augarde called, “Go! Go! Go!”

I dropped the AK into my lap and heaved hard on the windscreen, pushing it forward out of the way. I knew we had taken hits, and both on my side. We had been lucky, then. “How many guns?” I called as I got us on the move again.

“I counted three separate sets of flashes. They’re now minus one headlamp and probably loosing water. You okay, sir?”

“I’m okay. You?”


“Shit! Where?”

“Hip. Nothing desperate.”

So we weren’t quite so lucky. “How is it?”  Such questions are always stupid, even at the best of times.

“It’s okay, sir. Honest! Left, coming up.”

This hair-pin was not quite a hair-pin. I was concentrating hard on a hard left swing, thinking it was a prelude to another straight, along which the other jeep had just passed. It was not. And again I lost control, our front off-side wheel ending up perched perilously on the edge of a huge flat rock, on the other side of which the swamp steamed malevolently, like a simmering witch’s cauldron. I whipped the gear lever into reverse and gunned the engine. The wheels refused to grip and we slid further over the rock.

“Hang on!” Augarde called. He threw his AK onto the back seat and leapt out, throwing his weight onto the mudguard. “Now!” He rocked the front end of the jeep up and down.

I eased the revs whilst slowly engaging the clutch. We crept back onto the track. Augarde bounded back in and grabbed his weapon. I swung the wheel hard right and there, stretching away into nothing, were the red markers. I realized that though we had just passed the other jeep by a matter of meters, in reality we were still some distance behind it. Grimly, determined to do a whole lot better, I settled down to drive.

Ten minutes passed uneventfully. Then fifteen. Then I remembered Augarde’s “nick”. “You okay?”


“You’re a bloody liar!”


I said, “Would you be better off driving?”

“No, sir. I’m fine. It’s only a scratch. I’ve felt around. In and out. Clean.”

“But it hurt like a bastard. Right?”

“Like a bastard,” he agreed.

“Bleeding a lot?”


“Can you staunch it?”

He did not answer. I risked a sidelong glance. He had the torch on, but what it illuminated, I could not see. I eased of the gas pedal a bit, to make the ride smoother. At last Augarde straightened and flicked the torch off. “Okay, sir. It’s a nick all right. Not even in and out. More of a graze. Not bleeding too much.”

“The crunch question, sergeant,” I said. I had to know, and now. “What can you do, and what can’t you do?”

“Well, sir,” he began, “I wont be able to run a mile. But in the short term you can count me in on anything. Really!”



“Do you recognize

“No, sir.”

“Hang on.”

“I’m hanging.”

I flicked the sweat from my hands, one by one, then pushed my foot hard to the floor.

Almost an hour of desperately dangerous, thoroughly hare-brained driving later, I finally caught a glimpse of a red tail light. Then the bullets began to fly again. I could see the flashes and hear the sibilant whine and the occasional slap as a bullet found a tree trunk, but of the actual firing I could hear nothing. We crouched as low as we could below the protection of the front panel as the crazy chase went on. The track still twisted and turned, but with nothing like the severity of the earlier passage. And the mud seemed less water-slicked here. Obviously the humidity was fairly localized around the river tonight. The red tail lights came and went, and each time they appeared ahead of us, so did the singing, zipping bullets and noiseless flashes. The roar of our engine, in any case, was enough to drown out anything distant. But we were definitely gaining yardage by the minute.

I wondered what Bjoran’s strategy would be now. He must realize that Kimba would either have been contacted, or would hear the shooting - we were in the final ten or so kilometers, and the track was pushing out wider and wider. Also, the swamp was becoming less and less of a death trap as it shallowed out. He, Bjoran, must realize that the game was up, unless he could dispose of whoever it was following them. If they could do that, he might think there was still a slim chance of his pulling something out of the fire. The big question in his mind would be whether or not someone, anyone, had contacted Kimba. Being the man he was, Kimba might hear the shooting and
not think to switch on his radio. It was the slimmest of chances from the Swede’s point of view, but the only one worthy of consideration. Given that thousand-to-one chance, Bjoran might think himself able to bluff his way close enough to Kimba’s detail to dispose of it.

It boiled down to two options, then. Give up, or fight.

The girl, the pilot and the doctor might have surrender on their minds. Bjoran and his other renegade friend, or friends, would not even be considering it. They well knew what happened to turncoat mercenaries.

My thoughts were interrupted as Augarde pushed himself up and squinted ahead along the track. Then I saw it myself. Someone was sprawled in the mud.

“A trap?” said Augarde, as I eased off. Then, as the headlights came fully onto the prone figure, he added, “No. His head’s blown in.”

I looked ahead. The lead jeep was long gone. The shape in the mud had no face at all, but his clothes told me he was the pilot, or had been.





Several things conspired against Jackson Reynolds that night, the mainspring of which being his ignorance as to who was doing what, and to whom. He did not know of the SIS approach to McCann, neither did he know that his SAI superiors had subsequently put in a bid of their own, which placed him and McCann on common, if mutually unknown, ground. All Reynolds knew was what had transpired in front of his own eyes; that the mercenary force he had been placed in the field to keep track of, was now in Zaire. Someplace in the middle of a swamp. And that McCann, for some reason, had been prompted to double-cross the Chinese. It did not occur to him for a single instant that, against all the possible expectations, SAI had involved itself so directly in the thick end of the wedge.

It was unfortunate for him that Bjoran’s conversation with Mai Chan had been such a furtive, whispered affair, into which neither he nor the doctor had been drawn. And the girl had volunteered nothing but that the Swede, for a price, was arranging an escape. As far as Reynolds knew, all that had taken place at Camp-One was the result of a falling out amongst thieves.

Also, he did not know that his cover had been blown for some time, or that Luang had sent him in with the girl as a simple expedient for keeping him out of touch with his South African masters, or that the girl, though temporarily puzzled by his reaction in McCann’s cabin, had not been fooled for a moment - that whilst hoping that Bjoran would not mention South Africa in Reynold’s hearing, she was fully prepared for such an contingency. She knew that whilst they might lose a pilot to fly them out, they would still have the helicopter’s radio. And, for her, the single most important element of the escape was that Chi Luang, in Brazzaville, be alerted. All else, personal safety included, was unimportant.

When it had become obvious that they were being pursued Mai Chan had instructed Bjoran to attempt a communication on the jeep’s radio.

“Wont do no fuikin’ good!” Bjoran had replied frantically, his mind now racing through the alternatives and coming up with nothing. “Dat t’ing won’ reach Brazza from ‘ere. We gotta wait til we reach the grass.”

“Try it anyway,” spat the girl, loosing off a short burst at the lights now visible through the trees. She was in the front passenger’s seat, Bjoran was driving. Reynolds, the doctor, and Bjoran’s choice of a partner; his Simba two-striper, were crushed in the rear space. Reynolds and the Simba carried on the short exchange of fire as Bjoran leant over and grabbed the radio’s microphone. “Who do I fuickin’ well call?” he yelled, as Augarde’s bullets spattered into a headlight.”

“Call sign, Parka.”

Bjoran grunted, remembering that that was the name McCann had used. “Parka! Parka! Parka!” he shouted at the microphone, his eyes glued to the red markers. He loosed the transmit button and the ‘speaker was filled with weird noises, impossible to characterize above the combined racket of the engine and the guns. Then the shooting was over. He tried again. “Parka! Parka! Parka! Come in! Come in!” To receive.

Again the ‘speaker was filled with unintelligible gibberish. Bjoran was about to conclude that one of the bullets must have hit the aerial, when the gibberish disentangled itself in his mind. It was Arabic music! He cursed and threw the microphone away from him. “Da bassads are jammin’ us!” His stomach lurched as he realized the implications.

Mai Chan sensed the panic in his voice. She sensed also that
mind would now be in top gear. With the escape still a possibility he would obviously make himself party to it, but as the chances diminished, as they were now doing, he would be considering other opportunities, if only to remain alive. She heard the Simba call that the lights were again drawing close, and the shooting started up again. She came to her decision   Jamming her legs into the space between her seat and the dashboard, she rose up, as if to join the firefight. It required no delicacy at all. She simply fired off a long burst and allowed her aim to wander towards Reynolds’ head. The doctor, who was crouched over his knees, his arms covering his head, saw nothing. He did not even noticed that Reynolds was no longer beside him. The Simba., in the confusion, came to the only conclusion allowed him as he saw Reynold’s body tumble from the jeep; that he had been hit by the return fire. It did not even dawn on him that, at that particular moment, there had
no return fire.

Satisfied now that she was at least free of
unknown quantity, Mai Chan leant towards Bjoran. “We’ve lost the pilot!”

Bjoran, his face contorted in panic and confusion, glanced around momentarily. “Oh, jees!” he hissed, thumping the wheel with a clenched fist. The whole thing was falling to pieces around him!  But there was no way back. And now
was becoming less and less a possibility!

“We must stop!” Mai Chan shouted at him. “An ambush!”

Again Bjoran hit the wheel as the anger welled up inside him; the anger of a cornered leopard. “I know what the fuick to do!” he screamed, his eyes searching the expanding track for an opportunity. If they could only rid themselves of the pursuit there might still be a fighting chance of making it to the helicopter, and a powerful radio!  He saw it then; an outcrop of bushes. He swung the wheel over and knocked the jeep out of gear.




Augarde yelled, “Hard over!”

I had already seen it for myself; a single red reflector and part of a bumper sticking out from behind a large bush. And it was no surprise. From their point of view, it would be ambush or nothing. I aimed the jeep at the undergrowth and hit the brake and the clutch simultaneously. We arrowed into the bushes amid a welter of cracking branches and showering leaves. The jeep tried to turn itself over on a boulder, failed, and crashed back onto its springs. I was vaguely aware of Augarde launching himself out over the side of the jeep as the bullets slapped the jungle all around us. I yanked on the ignition as I dived out over my side. The lights flicked off and the engine died. I landed on mud, and then scrabbled for the cover of the jeep. Then the bullets stopped and there was silence. It was now as black as pitch and the only sounds were the tinking of the jeep’s engine and the hollow plopping of drips from the trees around us. But inside my head the noise continued to roar, diminishing only slowly. I heard Augarde hiss, “You okay, sir?”

“Yeah. You?” I could not tell exactly where he was.

“Just about. Where are you?” He obviously had the same problem.

“Over here.” Which was about as helpful as not saying anything. “Behind the front wheel,” I added.


There was a rustling of leaves, then I felt him beside me. “How’s the hip” I asked.

“Am I allowed to lie, sir?”

“By all means.”

“Then it’s fine. Doesn’t hurt a bit.”

“Thought not. Got your AK?” Mine, still in my lap, had taken the wind out of me as I landed.

“I have.” I felt him move away, heard a subdued clattering and scraping, and then he was back. Something was pressed into my side. “Here you go.” It was a handful of clips.

There was a brief flash of light from up ahead, strong enough to have been a headlamp flicked on and off. For a second the inside of my eyes retained the image of Augarde’s face and the leaves behind him. “They’re getting their bearings.”

“Well,” said Augarde matter-of-factly, “They’ve got to try for a rush now. Waiting around won’t be in their book.”

I nodded at nothing but the darkness. He was right. Whatever we were going to do, it had to be done now, straight away. “I’m going to work my way over to the other side of the track. Give me thirty seconds. After that, fire at any sound you hear, bar none!” I cradled the AK in the crook of my arms and slithered out over the mud.

The biggest problem about doing anything in pitch blackness is that, if you’re not very careful, you lose sense of direction, become disoriented. If that happens you can fall apart. The only way is to decide upon your direction, then stick to it regardless. If you once falter, you’re finished. I must have covered twenty feet without encountering a rock or a bush. Surely the track was not
wide! Had I changed direction? Was I now headed along the track east or west? Instead of across it. I stopped and listened. There was a soft splashing from way off to my left; a croc or something; certainly it was too far away to be either Augarde or any of the others.

It would be stupid to say that I felt naked out there, because I was, or as good as. But I have always had this thing, this aversion, to and about catching a bullet in naked flesh, as opposed to flesh covered with clothes. I cannot imagine what the difference might be. But there it is. So I took time to plaster myself in mud, which not only covered the give-away whiteness of my skin, it also made me feel better in myself. I listened again. Still nothing.

Back to the problem of where I was in relation to everyone else. I began to weigh up the options, but immediately stopped myself. That was the route to nowhere. If I was not absolutely certain of my position now, and I was not, then thinking about it would only make it worse. There were no clues to be had outside my body. So I decided that I had got where I wanted to be, or as near as dammit, and I twisted around until I was facing what I thought would be the right direction. I leveled the AK, laying the spare clips within easy reach. I did not have to wait long.


The flames lit up the jungle like a red-yellow strobe, and came from somewhere up the track. And the track turned out to be off to my right. I had been pointed in the wrong direction entirely. I slithered around. Now I knew exactly where I was. Which was something at least.


That short burst came from over my right shoulder. Augarde, then. I pushed myself closer to the mud and waited. So far I had seen nothing but flames, and I hadn’t really gotten a good look up the track. Out in the blackness ahead of me I heard some hoarse whisperings and some scrabbling around. I held my fire because there was nothing to shoot at.

And it was then that I became conscious of the gut-wrenching fear I would always experience immediately prior to a premeditated fire fight. It is one thing to be launched into battle on the spur of unaided circumstance; it is something else entirely when you have time to consider the possibilities. I had never been successful at ignoring that fear; the almost uncontrollable urge to run and hide, to be a million miles away from where you were. I lived with it because it was part of my stock in trade, and I supposed everyone else did too. “Cat” Souchet had once asked me if I was afraid of dying. Actually, he asked if I was afraid of the
of death. I cannot remember exactly what my answer was, but I think I hedged. That was the first and last time the subject was ever raised, with anyone. I know now that “Cat” asked the question because he felt the same as I did. I am certain, also, that there is not a man alive who does not fear death, or, at least, the method of his dying. I cannot speak for women. But I doubt there would be any changes. Or is it the
we’re afraid of. I don’t know.

There was the click of a bolt being drawn. It came from Augarde’s direction.


These shots came from up ahead of me, and I had them pinpointed. I squeezed off a short burst, grabbed the spare clips from the mud, and rolled sideways, expecting my vacated position to be raked. It wasn’t. Someone up there was not paying attention. I carried on rolling and felt a branch brush my shoulder. At last!  There was another burst from up ahead and the staccato TRRRRRRR of a Thompson. Of those flames I saw nothing but the reflection on the leaf canopy overhead. So far I had been desperately lucky not to draw fire. I had to make that luck count for something.


The mud kicked up into my face and a ricochet screamed past my ear. Leaves showered down on me. That was too damned close for comfort, and I wondered if leaving the cover of the jeep had been such a good idea.


A long, raking burst from Augarde’s direction. Someone up the track screamed. Good for you, sarge, I thought. Then there was silence. No, not silence. Someone up there was moaning. Down, then, but not out of it. Moaners, as a general rule, should not be counted as fatalities; it is the silent ones who die. Moaners can sometimes get mad and throw caution to the wind. And a man who suddenly doesn’t give a damn can get lucky. I cocked my head to one side and tried to ascertain the direction.


Again the mud kicked up around me. This time I felt a sudden sharp pain in my right cheek. It stuck like hell. A splinter. I reached up and felt with my muddy fingertips. It was a splinter. Not a big one, but it
like a monster. I yanked it out. Blood poured down my face, but it stopped stinging.



Another scream. I pulled my trigger and waved the AK in a short semi-circle and for several seconds it was bedlam. I caught a glimpse of a running figure and brought my weapon to bear. It was a man, but which one of them, I couldn’t tell. In the strobe-like flashes his run was disjointed, like an old movie run on a modern-day projector. I don’t know whether I hit him or not. Then there was silence again. The moaner had stopped moaning. Then a twig broke. A sharp, crisp sound. But from where? Do it again, I willed. Do it again! Where the hell was he - or was it
  Distant? Close? Left? Right? Where?  And, how many?

BOOK: Place of Bones
8.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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