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Authors: Larry Johns

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BOOK: Place of Bones
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TRRRRRRRR... Click! Click!

The Thompson had finished its clip. But I still had no idea of its position. I eased out from under the bush and my elbow toppled the small pile of spare clips. The noise, to me, was like a skyscraper coming down.

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TRRRRRRRR...

I felt the wind of some of those bullets passing my face and the air around me hummed like a swarm of hornets. A few moments ago, when the fear was on me, I would have dived back to the bush under that hail of lead. But I was over that fear now, as always happened. The fire fight was now a matter of fact. I loosed off a burst and slid further out into the track.

“Colonel McCann?”

It was the girl’s voice. What the hell did
she
want.
I
wanted to fight!

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!  That lot came from Augarde. Then nothing.

“Colonel McCann!”

I held my fire because I figured I was now out in the middle of nowhere again. And I did not reply vocally for that same reason.

RAT-TAT-TAT! Another burst from Augarde.

Fine. But where was Bjoran in all this.

“Colonel McCann! I am in cover, so fire away if you have the ammunition to waste.”

I had the bearing of her voice pegged then, but was directing my attention at the other side of the track. Because that was where Bjoran would be. Him, or his buddy. I doubted the doctor would be doing anything constructive to their cause. I doubted he even knew what was happening to him. I heard Augarde call, “What?”

The girl again. “Who is that?”

I could have told her. I could also have told her why he had called - he was getting their attention, giving me space to move. I continued my slide back to the jeep. “Coming in!” I hissed.

“Come ahead,” Augarde hissed back at me. Then I felt the wheel of the jeep. I moved in behind it.

“Colonel McCann!” The girl’s voice had an irritated edge to it now.

I eased myself up and nudged the AK over the rim of the jeep. I wished I had brought one of the other walkie-talkies with us. I could have called Kimba and had him bring his detail in from the other direction. The jeep’s radios were fitted with different crystals to the W/T’s. To Augarde, I hissed, “Keep your eyes peeled. One of them’s over the other side. Probably working his way down.” Then I raised my voice. “What do you want, major?” My use of her rank was deliberate. I was telling her that if she wanted to play with the big boys, she’d have to do it on big boy terms. I have never consciously considered myself any kind of a chauvinist, but I guess that deep down, I was. In any event, that girl got right up my nose.

“Ah! At last! Colonel McCann, I am ready to concede defeat.”

Beside me, Augarde croaked, “In a pig’s ear!”

I called, “I see,” and I fed a fresh clip into the AK.

“Are you ready to listen?” Her voice came eerily through the blackness, but it was steady, with no traces of emotion. I had to give her credit for that.

“How many are left out there?”

“Of us?”

Augarde chuckled. “Who the hell does she
think
you mean!”

She called again. “I think just myself, the doctor, and your sergeant’s compatriot.”

Could the moaner have been Bjoran?  I yelled, “Okay, prove it.” Then to Augarde, “On the left, sarge. Watch it!” This was not a stand-off, I knew it. This was a strategic conversation. But it worked both ways.

The girl. “How?”

“Is your vehicle still operable?”

A pause. “I think so.”

“Start it up, switch on the lights, then back it out onto the track. You can drive, I assume.”

“I can drive.”

“Then do it. Aim your lights midway between us and you. If the beam shines directly on us, you’ll be dead where you sit!”

Another pause. “Very well. I will try.” Then, coming as an afterthought, “If I do this, am I guaranteed safety?”

“Do exactly what I’ve said and we will not open fire. Where’s the other gun?”

“The Simba?”

“If that’s what he is, yes.”

“Here, boss.” The man’s voice was muffled, as if he had his face turned away, and it came from over to the left.

Augarde whispered, “He wont came in tamely, sir.”

“I know it, and I’ve also got my doubts about our major of the Chinese army.” To the voice on the left, I called, “You feel the same way, soldier?”

“Ya, boss.”

Augarde spat, “Load of bollocks!  He’ll come out shooting, or my name’s not Mary.”

I shouted, “If you’re in cover, come out now ! Into the open.”

“I
am
out, boss!”

Was he? I didn’t know. I heard Augarde mutter something. I did not have to hear it to know what it was. I called, “How about it, major?”

“I agree. I move now. Do not fire.”

Augarde said, “It’s going to happen now, sir.”

I nodded at the night. I heard the clatter of the starter motor engaging. The engine caught and the lights wound up, bathing the trees overhead a glittering grey. The jeep, taillights first, came slowly into view. I ignored it, keeping my whole concentration on the other side of the track.

RAT-TAT-TAT-Click-Click!

Shit!  That burst came from the right, from the direction of the moaner. Augarde took it, loosing off a long arcing volley. There was another cry. then a soft gurgling. Nothing stirred on the Simba’s side. Augarde rammed home a fresh clip, hissing,”Cagey bastard! Almost had me fooled.”

The girl was calling, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

Augarde again. “That was Bjoran. Had to be.”

To him, I said, “You stay with him. Just in case he’s not as dead as he wants us to think he is. I’m on the Simba.” Then to the girl, “Carry on, major. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one.”

Augarde was muttering again. I ignored him. The jeep came out slowly, then eased forward, turning. The remaining headlamp beam passed over Bjoran’s still, blood-spattered body, lying in the mud, some thirty feet from us. That was one question answered. Augarde, who had seen it too, said, “One left, then.”

The Simba chose that moment to confirm that he was not about to yield to mercenary justice. He appeared out of the bushes almost exactly in front of my AK. Augarde and I fired at the same instant. Eleven shots. Eleven hits. The man sprang back into the bushes as if on a bungee rope. The girl, also, was of a like mind. But we were ready for her, too.

Whether she had planned it that way or not, we were never to find out. Perhaps she was simply reacting to events. Either way, she leapt from the jeep, Thompson blazing.

I do not know how many hits she took. But it was a lot. She ended up sprawled across Bjoran’s legs, her tiny body ripped apart. I stepped over through the smoke of our volley and looked down at her. This was the first time I had killed a woman in so personal a manner. Certainly I had never
tried
to kill a woman before. But grenades and bombs spread their messages far and wide. Accidents are, and will always be, inevitable. I did feel a pang of remorse at the sheer waste of womanhood here. Perhaps I really was a chauvinist.

Augarde stepped in beside me. “Gutsy little bitch, eh?”

I had no response for him. Then there was a grunt and a splash and the doctor appeared. He was just walking, his arms hanging limply at his sides.

“Don’t,” I said.

“I wasn’t going to,” said Augarde.

The man walked right past us as if we were not there, and carried on down the track. He passed out of the light of the headlamp and into the darkness. We did not try to stop him and we never saw him again.

 

FIFTEEN

 

Jean-Paul Winterhoek was not a man given easily to panic, but as he sat in front of the transceiver in the basement of Casa Bianca waiting for the carrier wave to come alive, sensing the seconds, the minutes, ticking irretrievably by, he felt the beginnings of that state inserting its icy key into the door of his self control. They were going to be too late, he grew more and more certain of it. For any number of reasons, one of which could be to do with the mysterious Arabic music that was currently flooding the frequency the Chinese used, McCann was going to miss his contact schedule. The helicopters would arrive, casting up and down the river, seeing on-one, hearing nothing over their radios. Would the mercenary leader be able to hear the jet turbines at that distance? And even if he, or
anyone
could, would they simply assume that it was just another FZA sortie? The next contact time would be too late. Their was a limit as to how long the Indian pilots could, or
would
fly their aircraft up and down a corridor of Zaire airspace, in
broad daylight!
How long would they give it? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? Could Winterhoek risk calling them? Yes, he decided, he could risk that. But would it help? It might help the pilots, but would it help
him?

“Come on! Come on!” he demanded of the loudspeaker.

Jan Bluthen sat at a receiver on the other side of the squat room. He wore headphones, and was searching the frequencies; always arriving back at the Chinese frequency and that damned music. What the hell did it mean? And who was transmitting? Chi Luang? No. The signal was not that strong. McCann, then. The signal strength was about right for that distance. But that was a ridiculous notion. Who, then? Was there a clue on a nearby wavelength? It had to mean something. He checked his watch. The call from McCann was already two minutes overdue.

In his mind, Bluthen tried to visualize the map; a straight line almost due south of Tambura to the Camp-One area. Where, along that line, would the aircraft be now? They would cross,
have
crossed, the Sudan/Zaire border south of Sourceyebo. Three hundred miles further along the imagined line they would overfly Lebo, then Matundi. Another three hundred would bring them to Binga. Would they be there now? Or were they closer, perhaps Mobeka and their first sight of the great Zaire river? From there it was only ninety miles to Camp-One, give or take. Bluthen checked his watch yet again. They had been in the air almost five hours. It seemed like years. He flicked over to the frequency Winterhoek was listening to. Still empty. Then back to the Arabic music. Except that it was no longer there! He fine-tuned the dial left and right. Could it be? Yes, that frequency was definitely clear now!

“It’s clear, sir!”

“Eh?”  Winterhoek turned distractedly.

“The frequency is clear now.”

Winterhoek nodded, sighed, then shook his head. Clear or not, none of it made any sense. “I don’t know. I just don’t know,” he muttered, returning to his listening vigil.

At precisely ten minutes past the scheduled time, the ‘speaker burst into life.

“Gemini!...Gemini!...Gemini!”

Winterhoek threw his arms into the air then grabbed the microphone. “Listen carefully...Listen carefully...The message is...Grape...Sling...Yard...Shot...Tinder...”

 

*

 

“...Span...Moat...Hover...Hammer...Wave...Riddle...Class...Will repeat in thirty seconds. Out!”

I looked at Piet and he looked at me. This was potty. We had been expecting a series of Morse codes, dotes and dashes which would confirm stable conditions at the targets. We had
not
expected to be actually
spoken
to!  Piet blinked and said, “What the hell does that mean!”

“For Christ’s sake!” I said back at him, “You’re the one with the code in your hand. Did you get any of it?”

He shook his head. “They’re going to do it again.”

“It’s just as bloody well!  Get ready for it. The first word was Grape, anyway.”

“You sure?”

I was sure. “Write it down, and hand me that note pad.” He did both and I looked up Grape. “It means Abort.”

Piet sighed, the pencil ready in his hand. “Well, that’s bloody charming!”

I thought so too. Five minutes ago I had come back in covered in mud from head to toe, after a chase that should have been filmed for some horror movie, with a wounded sergeant, two jeeps with bullet holes in them and one with only half a set of headlights. To have the whole thing called off now seemed...Then I remembered the second word they had sent; Sling. I looked it up. It meant Second Strike. I felt happier but said nothing to Piet. Then the ‘speaker crackled.

“Are you there?”

To no-one in particular, Piet said, “What the hell kind of radio procedure is that, for Pete’s sake!
Are you there?
Jesus!”

He was right. I said, “Tell him you’re there.”

Piet lifted the microphone, a twisted smile on his face. “Yes,” he said, “We’re here.”

“Will repeat now...”

“Go ahead,” said Piet, raising a half-amused, half- baffled eyebrow at me.

“Grape...Sling...Yard...Shot...Tinder...Span...Moat...Hover...Hammer...Wave…Riddle...Class...” 

A brief pause. “Received?”

Piet had been scribbling furiously. I lifted the microphone myself, glanced at Piet, who nodded, still scribbling, then said, “Received...Stand by.”  The carrier wave hissed at me. I handed the code book back to Piet and watched as he decoded the whole thing.

Grape -
Abort.

Sling -
2nd Strike.

Yard -
Implement.

Shot -
1st Strike.

Tinder -
Immediate.

Span -
Transport.

Moat -
En Route.

Hover -
E.T.A.

Hammer -
1 (hour)

Wave -
Confirm.

Riddle -
Readiness.

Class -
Standing by.

We stared down at what he had written. Piet said, “Jesus Henry! Am I reading that right?”

Since I had been about to say much the same thing, I did not reply. I read it through again, placing punctuation where it seemed most appropriate; a misplaced full point can sometimes wreak havoc with codes of that nature. There did not seem to be a mistake. I said, “Abort second strike. Well, that’s fair enough.”

Piet said, “That’s the only bit that
does
make any sense. Implement first strike...Immediate transport...What the hell does that mean?”

I said, “It says, implement first strike immediate...Transport en route...E.T.A. one hour...” I saw it written there but did not believe it.

Piet sat back in the chair and laughed an odd sort of laugh. “One hour! Nah! There’s a blunder somewhere. There has to be.”

“Show me where?” I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as the full weight of the message came together in my mind. “The man wants us to confirm our readiness. One hour.” I felt like laughing. If I had, it would have bordered on the hysterical.

Piet chuckled sardonically. “If
that’s
what he wants, then he’s a bloody lunatic! Confirm readiness! How in the name of pink flying elephants can we confirm a readiness that’s beyond even God Almighty!”

I refused to give way to confusion. There had to be a good reason for both the update and the verbal transmission. It said in the instructions that the latter would only be employed in the event of an absolute emergency. So, okay, there was an absolute emergency. I said, “Maybe Motanga is getting set to pull out of Kinshasa.” The
confirm
readiness
bit, however, did floor me. Unless...

Piet spat, “The man says he’s standing by, for chrissakes!  He’s not just a lunatic, he’s bloody senile!” He stood up sharply and almost knocked my teeth out with the top of his head. “He can’t
seriously
be suggesting we move out, lock stock and barrel, in
one hour!
He knows we can’t get out to the landing area in less than
four!
He
knows
it!”

Exactly!  I said, “Right. So it has to be the river.”

Piet looked agape. “The river? Three hund - “

I cut in. “No, hang on, Pete. Let me think.”

He shook his head as if he washed his hands of the whole thing and he wandered over and looked out the door. “Play on,” he muttered at the men, who were squatting around in groups playing their dice games.

I said, “How many men could we move out to the river?”

“In an hour?” Pete’s tone was listless now.

“Yes. In an hour.”

“Christ knows! Thirty? Forty, tops. It would take an hour simply to unload the trailer.”  

“Forty, then. Enough. Better, in fact.” I had the message pegged then and, strangely, I felt good about it. It had begun. Perhaps on the wrong foot, but it
had
begun.

Piet said, “Better than what?” He glanced at me, his forehead creased.

“Better than a full strike on the compound. That was always going to be unwieldy.”

“So you said before, squire,” he said almost disinterestedly. “But airborne
how?
You’re talking about the river, not the landing area.”

I said, “Sure. So we use the inflatables. Shuttle out and back while the choppers hover. That’s the only way, and our buddy in Brazzaville knows it. He’ll also know...” I reached for the code book and the microphone. I wanted three words for my question. I sorted them out; Grace -
Specify,
March -
Numbers, Span
-
Transport.
I went to transmit and said, “Grace...March...Span... Ends.”

For at least fifteen seconds the loudspeaker remained silent. Then the voice came in with a single word.

“Select!”

I checked the list. Bingo! “Two! They’re sending only two choppers.”

Piet moved to my side then, interested now, as opposed to dejected. I again put the microphone to my mouth and went to transmit. “You get March...Tip...Granite...” (Numbers; four-zero)

A pause.

Then, “Understood, Gemini. Is that Wave?”

Wave was
Confirm.
“Wave,” I said, adding, “Out.” I tossed the microphone onto the table and turned to Piet. I felt elated. “I want forty of the best, Piet. As many Kangatzi as you can throw in. Plus that guy...what’s his name? Swafi? You can’t come, I’m afraid, old buddy.” I raised my hand as Piet opened his mouth. “The second strike could just be put back. We won’t know that for sure until I’ve had a chance to have a long talk with our friend over the radio, and we can’t chance long talks over the air until Motanga is taken out. When that’s done, I’ll come back up and we’ll sort the rest out.” I grabbed my ammo bandoleers. “Maybe you won’t have to do a damned thing for your money. Come on, for chrissakes! Smile! Someone’s got to remain in command. You know that.”

“Yes, but - “

“No buts, Pete. We don’t have time. Forty of the best, and double-damned quick. I’ll get onto the transport.” I poked my head out the door. “Brook!”

 

*

 

In Brazzaville, Jean-Paul Winterhoek and Jan Bluthen were also ebullient. So intense was their relief that they shook hands warmly and patted each others arms.

“It may not work,” said Winterhoek, still smiling broadly, “But, by God, it
could!

Then the smile vanished. “Now we have other work to do. Contact Pretoria and have Lumimba transferred to an aircraft. They must stand at readiness to take off. Then contact your people in Kinshasa. Let us spread a little confusion over there.”

 

*

 

 

Our departure from Kanyamifupa was a frantic, beat-the-clock affair; eleven minutes from start to pull-out. The rapidly-chosen few were given time only to grab their clothes and personal weapons and ammo belts, and pile into the transports. They did not know what had hit them or why. But most of them were Kangatzi and I didn’t see a single sullen face. They were going into action against the FZA, and that was enough. The grenade boxes, heavy weaponry and its ammo, Brook had tossed into the truck amongst the crush of sweat-drenched bodies. Augarde hobbled out to see what the new activity was about. He had a swathe of bandage on his hip, but I did not have time to ask him who put it there. He was teed off at being unfit to go along. So was I. Of the two, Augarde and Brook, I would have preferred Augarde. It only takes one action to know timbre of your man.

In the end we managed to cram 44 men into the truck and the two jeeps, plus the hurriedly-gathered and distributed accouterments of war. The jeeps accounted for eight apiece. Vastly overloaded. The springs did not simply groan at the weight, they gave up, and most of the trip out was a bone-jarring ride on chassis alone. We had three in the rear spaces, one on each of the rear-mounted spare wheels, two on the front mudguards, plus driver and passenger. It was bloody hectic. The truck took the remaining 28, five of them riding in the cab like fish in a tin. How the hell the driver ever managed to change gear, I do not know. If he
did.
A quick handshake with Pit and Augarde, and I waved us off from the lead jeep. The small convoy dived into the east track like something you might see in a Crazy Cops movie.

BOOK: Place of Bones
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