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Authors: Larry Johns

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BOOK: Place of Bones
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Almost immediately we hit mist; a smoky opaqueness that soaked up artificial light as if it did not exist. Only the glittering red splotches showed up. As we moved further and further from the camp so the mist thickened. The leaves and branches upon which the paint had been daubed became nothing more than slightly greyer shadows in an integrally grey world.

On we drove.

The given hour elapsed when, by my estimation, we were still some fifteen minutes from the river. I tried, again, to raise the choppers on the W/T.

“Baker-One...Baker-One...Baker-One...Do you read?”

To receive.

Again, there was something in the ether, a definite voice mixed in with the crackling static. But it was a garble.

“Baker-One...Baker-One...If you read, hold position...Hold position...ETA, fifteen minutes.”

The poor reception I was experiencing, I knew, had nothing to do with the smothering nature of the thickly-entwined vegetation through which we were passing. Well, little anyway. It would be because the pilots would not risk full-strength transmissions. They would be set as weak as they could, holding the range down to the barest minimum. Maybe ten miles. But I figured that if they could hear me, if only as much, or as little, as I could hear them  - and it had to
be
them - then that was enough for the present. I tried again. “Baker-One...Baker-One...This is Charlie-One. Hold position. ETA twelve minutes.”

To receive. Nothing but interference this time. I tried again. Then I did hear a little of something.

“...ition...STATIC...outh an...STATIC...inutes...STATIC...”

“Baker-One. I hear you...I hear you...But garbled...Hold position. We’re closing...We’re closing...Eleven minutes...”

“...lie-One...STATIC...oud an...STATIC...eeping south an...STATIC...hear me...” Voice and static vying for airspace.

I jammed a finger in my other ear against the crashing, whining noise of our passage through the jungle. “Baker-One...Baker-One...ETA nine minutes...Hold position...We’re coming.”

I went over to receive. Then, starling in its clarity and volume, there was another voice. It was Piet.

“Hold it, Robbie. You’re making a bloody pig’s ear of that. I’ve got one of the pilots on SSB. You’re trying to talk to the copilot of the other chopper, and neither of you is making any sense. Stand by.”

I smiled. Typical Vryburg. I could imagine him and Augarde at the SSB. I said, “Thanks, Piet. But for Christ’s sake keep the power down.”

“No sweat. I’m only pushing four watts. Now, get off the air. I’ll come back to you.”

I lay the walkie-talkie in my lap and continued to dress, or to try to. I’d already had my slacks on; all I needed now was the shirt and boots. It was not easy. I might have just crawled out of a fully-clothed mud bath. The ground ahead was a San Francisco pea-souper but the markers were still visible, though even they were losing brightness in the murk. The men on the mudguards in front of me swayed and jolted like rubber statues. I turned. The three men in the rear space were still with us, as, amazingly, was the spare wheel jockey. I lifted the W/T and changed channels for a word with Brook.

“How’re things back there, sergeant?” He was riding the trailing jeep.

“Okay so far, sir. Reminds me of the underground in the rush hour.

“Oh,” I said, “The British subway system that good, is it? Go up a channel. I’ve made contact.”

“Right. Up one. Gone.”

I returned to the other channel and waited. Piet came back a minute later.

“Robbie?”

“I’m here.”

“They’re making sweeps up and down river. They might be in the right place, they might not.”

“We’ll figure that out when we get there. How many are there?”

“Two, like the man said. You got fog out there?”

“We do.”

“Sod your luck, man. You still got to get up in the damn things. Pilot says it’ll be iffy. Say’s the river is not visible.”

“We’ll do it somehow.”

“Famous last words. How far out are you?”

I checked my watch and did some figuring. “Maybe five minutes. The track’s widening out. Keep the aerial wound out, Piet. All the way, all the time. If you stay on channel you should hear us do our thing.”

“I’m already selling sit-down space. It’ll be a bloody sell out. You do it proper, man. You hear!”

“I hear. Be back by late this evening. Have Dondo wamp up a mess of something special. Oh, and get something medical sorted out, if you can. We’ll have wounded.”

“Where’s that bloody doctor?”

“Go find him. We didn’t. Just do your best.” Suddenly I saw real daylight up ahead, as opposed to the filtered stuff we’d been driving through. “We’re there, Piet.” We burst out of the trees. “The pilot’s right, it’s not a river, it’s a feather-bloody-bed!”

“Yeah. Right. Well, try the man for yourself now.”

I clambered out of the jeep and walked through the waist-high mist towards the river, or, where I thought the river should be. The truck and the second jeep trundled to a halt behind me and the men began piling out. I listened for the aircraft, but could hear nothing.

“Baker-One. Baker-One. Do you read?”

And there he was.

“Charlie-One. I read you loud and clear. And not before time.” The man’s English was near perfect, the accent cultured Asian. “Can you hear us?”

I yelled for some quiet amongst the men, and listened again. Away off in the distance, somewhere, I could now pick up the whine of turbines. “Which way are you headed now?”

“North.”

“Swing south.”

“Roger!”

The sound grew fainter then disappeared altogether. “Baker-One?”

“Here.”

“North again. Sorry ‘bout that.”

“Coming north.”

There it was again, and getting stronger.

“How’s that, Charlie-One?”

“Keep coming.”  Then, to a hovering Brook, “Break out the inflatables. On the double!”

But I had my doubts. The mist out on the river must have been five feet thick. In a boat you’d be under it all the way. Unless the rotors of the chopper cleared the air. And how fast was the river running? I felt my way forward until my feet were in the water.

Shit! It was like a tide race. Was this going to work?

 

SIXTEEN

 

Prem Mahindru was not a mercenary. He was a professional pilot currently under contract to the Sudanese Air Force. It was a contract that bound him to that service for five more years. But it was a moot point. Two years ago he had been a flight officer with the Omani Air Force, and before that a pilot officer with the Saudi Air Force. If he was not a mercenary it was only because people who flew aircraft seemed to have their own words for things. He was dedicated to the air, and that was all that mattered to him. His part in the current operation was the result of a directive, an order, from the commander in chief of the S.A.F., not a result of personal choice. It was an act of undeclared warfare in an undeclared war, from which choice of words Prem Mahindru drew whatever comfort there was to be had on a mission such as his.

He was 36 years old and, like most of his caste, was thin and wiry. He was unmarried and, as such, considered quite a catch amongst the unattached women of Tambura’s Asian expatriate population. As Squadron Leader of S.A.F.’s Third Helicopter Strike Force, he was an expert in everything to do with rotary-wing flight. He disdained fixed-wing flight the way a wind-sailor might disdain cruising under power.

His orders were clear and precise. He was to fly into Zaire airspace at treetop level, thereby avoiding radar surveillance, make contact with and embark an unspecified number of mercenaries at a vague map reference, transporting them south to Kinshasa. At that destination, the mercenary force were expected to deplane “...under possibly hostile conditions...” If feasible he, and the second aircraft, piloted by Mahindru’s friend and subordinate, Ranjid Lulla, were to wait around until “...the passengers were ready to leave.” This was all Mahindru knew or cared to know. He did not know - though he had certainly guessed - why his aircraft had been de-liveried. Neither had he been told why only two were now needed, when the original brief had required almost his full squadron.

He pressed a button on the lateral-control column and spoke to his copilot over the intercom system. “Don’t ask me how, why, where or when, Kumar, but you’d better prepare the winch.”

Ahmed Kumar, a Punjabi, nodded bleakly as he stared down at the sea of white foaming mist. He unplugged his helmet’s “umbilical” cord, slipped off his seat belt and clambered back between the seats. In the vast belly of the aircraft he donned the “monkey” harness, which allowed him to move freely about the compartment tethered to a safety rail along which the clasp of the harness moved, then he slid open the belly doors. The downdraft battered him with the strength of a force-ten gale. He plugged his helmet cord into a socket by the door and moved the gooseneck microphone closer to his mouth.

“I don’t think this is going to work, sir.”

Mahindru’s reply was predictable. “Don’t tell
me
that, Kumar. Tell
them!
Up ahead. See them? Starboard side, about a thousand yards.”

Kumar leant further out into the downdraft and squinted along the cotton-wool valley. He saw the Dinky Toy shapes of the truck and what appeared to be two jeeps, back beneath the overhang of the trees!  “Is that river they’re standing in, sir? Or are they on the bank? Because if they can’t get out further than that...” He did not complete his observation. Decisions on operational viability belonged to Mahindru.

Up on the flight deck, Mahindru did not hear Kumar’s final comment in any case. He was now talking to McCann on the short wave channel. “I have you in sight, Charlie-One.”  Then, “Baker-Two. Target in sight. Slowing to fifty knots.”

“Roger!” acknowledged Ranjid Lulla, flying the trailing helicopter, “Slowing to five-oh knots.”

Minutes later Mahindru brought his aircraft to a hover, his eyes flicking at the rear view mirrors to check on the position of the sister aircraft. He briefly acknowledged the waves of the group of men he could see on the ground. They were waist-deep in the mist, but it was a mist that was slowly boiling up and clearing as the hole cut by the downdraft of the aircraft expanded outwards. It was never, however, clear enough for Mahindru to make out exactly what the men were standing on. “Are you able to move any further forward, Charlie-One? Or is that it?”

McCann’s voice. “I take one more step and I disappear. Not good, eh?”

Mahindru sighed. “No, not good. I can’t get above you, not and lower the winch.  What is directly below me? Rapids, deep water, or sandbank?”

“Deep water. Fast running.”

Mahindru groaned now. “I foresee problems. How many men are you?”

“Forty-four. We’ve got inflatables. Any help?”

Mahindru did some quick mental arithmetic. “That’s going to take forever, Charlie-One.” He picked out the man he was speaking to and lifted a hand. His wave was returned, along with a wry, “Good here, isn’t it.”

Mahindru smiled, despite his misgivings. “Wonderful. Stand by.”  He flicked over to the internal system. “Kumar?”

“Here, sir.”

“They have canoes or something. What do you think?”

Kumar, hanging out the belly doors, gazing down at the scene of impossibility, knew better than to say what he really thought. “Be here all day, sir.”

“Quite. Any alternative suggestions? You’re the winch expert; I only fly the damned plane.”

“Your terminology is correct, sir,” said Kumar, risking a little dubious irony of his own. “I’m the winch expert, not a magic man! No-one could winch up through that overhang. How tall are the trees? Seventy feet? More!  It will have to be
their
way.”

Mahindru tightened his lips then went back to McCann. “Charlie-One. Is it wadeable?  The river?”

“Out to about fifteen feet. Then we’d start losing people.”

Mahindru juggled his controls against a sudden updraft. When the aircraft was steady again he considered what McCann had said. It was no good, was it? The rotors needed twice that clearance, and Mahindru himself needed as much again as a safety margin. “It’ll have to be the boats, then, Charlie-One. Can you break them out?”

At that point, Kumar broke into the conversation. “Captain!” He was leaning over Mahindru’s shoulder. He pointed at his microphone and jerked his thumb in the direction of the cargo space. Mahindru nodded and called back to McCann. “Stand by, Charlie-One. Conference here.” He switched to the internal system after glancing over his shoulder to make sure his copilot was plugged back in. “Yes, Kumar?”

“We could do it another way, sir.”

“All suggestions gratefully received
baba.
” It was an Asian term of endearment he rarely used on operations.

“Take us up above the overhang, sir. I’ll send the cable down. They grab it and hold it. Then you bring us back out here, but lower. The cable will be in the water. They can swarm along it and -”

“Brilliant!” Mahindru cut in. “How much flexible ladder do we have on board?”

“A good forty feet, sir. But the less they have to climb, the quicker we can pass on to other things.”

“Well done, Kumar. Stand by.” Back to McCann. “Charlie-One?”

“We’re moving!”

“No. Scrub it!” He told McCann what he had in mind, then spoke to Ranjid Lulla, in the second aircraft. “Did you hear that, Ranjid?”

“I did, sir.”

“Do you have enough ladder aboard?”

“Yes, sir. I’m sure we have.”

“Okay. Standoff. I’ll need all the space I can get on this.”

“Pulling away.”

Lulla’s aircraft surged upwards, turned, and moved upstream. Mahindru eased his controls and his machine lifted, side slipped, was corrected, then slid in over the tree line. “Get it done sharpish, Kumar. These up-currents are murder.” Mahindru’s hands and feet moved in perfect synchronization as the helicopter bucked and kicked under him. The wire snaked down

“Can you see it, Charlie-One?”

“As you are, pilot. Almost here” Then, “Got it!”

“Roger! Kumar?”

“Paying out, sir.”

Mahindru allowed the helicopter to sideslip back out over the river, then began to ease it lower. “Kumar!”

“I’m watching, sir...Twenty feet...Fifteen...Steady...Steady...That’s close enough...Flexible ladder out.” Seconds later. “First man on the wire. How does she feel, sir?”

“It”, the aircraft, felt as skitterish as a newborn foal. “Just don’t let me sink too far.” Mahindru could see absolutely nothing of the area directly below him.

“Perish the thought, sir. Here they come.”

Mahindru risked a quick glance out the side window. Snaking back to shore, the winch wire was alive with crawling men. The first of them disappeared below the fuselage.

“One aboard, sir,” said Kumar. Then, “That’s two...”

 

 

The sun was a gleaming yellow ball pulling clear of the trees on the eastern skyline as we roared south past the settlement of Lulonga. The sky overhead was clear and bright, but the canyon of trees which was the Zaire River was still in shadow. I did not think we would raise much interest, not in Lulonga. To anyone who saw us flashing by, we would just be another FZA patrol. Mahindru was a minor miracle, a master of his trade. I sat between him and the copilot in the jump seat, and was as impressed as hell. I also gripped the seat-backs tightly. Over my headset I heard him state his flying intentions to the trailing chopper, which was hard on our tail rotor.

“Eighty knots, Baker-Two.”

“Coming back to eight-oh knots, sir,” came the reply.

Mahindru glanced down at the Perspex-covered map pocket on the leg of his flying suit. He looked at me and tapped it with a gloved finger. “Next problem is Mbandaka. Two midstream islands, by the look of it.”

“Three,” I said. “Two almost on top of each other, and a third some miles further downstream. You could fly a 747 down either channel. If you keep the first island on your left hand, it will be between us and the town.”

Mahindru nodded. “You’re well acquainted with this part of the world, colonel.”

“Happy hunting ground. How’s your fuel?”

“We refueled from drums in flight. Ditched them up near Mobeka. We’ll make Kinshasa for certain, provided we don’t make detours. And I’m informed there’s a strip outside Lininga where we can get more on the way back up. That’s inside the Congo border. Know it?”

Lininga was just south of Lukolela, our original embarkation point. I said, “I know it.”

He glanced at me. “Tell me about Kinshasa, colonel.” He hurriedly added, “I don’t mean tell me why it is you’re going there, I mean - “

“I know what you mean, pilot. Do you know the town?”

“Only from the ground.”

“Right. You know the Kikwit road? It’s a freeway now, at least the first few miles are.”

“Is that the one that skirts Pool Malebo?”

“Right,” I said. Pool Malebo was a large lake, some thirty miles long by twenty wide. It was fed by the Zaire River to the north-east, and drained via the Chutes de Zongo - rapids - to the south-west. A rough line through the middle of Pool Malebo, and indeed the Zaire River itself, at least as far north as the Zaire/Ubangui confluence, was the invisible border between the two countries. I had a sudden urge to be witty. “Well, where we’re going is nowhere near there.”

Mahindru and the copilot, who could overhear the conversation, turned and looked at me, faces blank. I shrugged. “Jokes later, eh...Of course, it
is.
There’s a reserve about six miles out of Kinshasa, on the Kikwit road, called...”

Mahindru suddenly burst out laughing and he slapped his knee. He twisted in his seat and thumped my shoulder. “I like it, colonel! By God, I do like it! I thought a weird sense of humor was the prerogative of pilots only.”

I like to see a professional laugh. “If I didn’t have a weird sense of humor, pilot, none of us would be here today, doing the stupid things we’re doing. Anyway, that’s where we’re headed. The Luano Reserve.”

Mahindru, getting rid of the dregs of his chuckle, asked, “I’m not prying, colonel, but what kind of opposition are we likely to encounter.” He raised a hand. “Before you answer that, I’d better tell you that I have yet to be informed that what we are all doing here is anything less than totally legal and above board.” He smiled.

“You know nothing?”

“No. Nothing. And you don’t have to tell me, either. I ask simply as a matter of flying interest.”

“Do you
want
to know?”

“Just about the primary opposition, colonel.”

I said, “It’s all the same thing, pilot. We are on our way to take president Aaron Motanga out of the political arena.”

Mahindru and the copilot exchanged glances and Mahindru’s voice came softly over the headset. “It had to be something like that.”

I said, “It feels like I’ve been rubbing out leaders of this God forsaken country all my life! As to the primary opposition, well, you do stand in danger of having more holes in your aircraft than are strictly called for. But I’ll try and go easy on you. You won’t have to sit on the ground like pregnant ducks. You drop us in then stand off a healthy distance until I call for you to come get us. I’d suggest you find a Wimpy bar and have a cup of coffee while you’re waiting, but I could really use that belly-cannon of yours. Would that fit in with your orders?”

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