Authors: Larry Johns
Tags: #Adventure, #Thriller
A track appeared ahead of us. On it, several miles east, a truck trailed a cloud of dust behind it. The copilot had his field glasses pressed to the windscreen. “Headed away from us. Open job. No markings.”
“He can join the club,” said Mahindru. “They still on the screen, colonel?”
I had taken over radar watch since the copilot had become involved with the truck. The range had been set at sixty miles and I had been tracking the progress of two blips that had appeared some time ago, headed north, some twelve miles out. They had disappeared and now there were no positive blips at all, just a lot of snow from the ground echoes. “Nope. Disappeared north”
“Right. River ahead.” said Mahindru.
I looked up. “That’s the Kwa.”
We drew closer and closer. The river glinted emptily under the sun. A huge cloud of white and pink flamingos rose into the air from the opposite bank. Mahindru twisted his left hand on the vertical flight control and the flamingos fell away beneath us and were gone. Mahindru was constantly checking the rear view mirror and talking to the other pilot. We sank back to earth and the scrub flashed beneath us in a blur. “Come on,” said Mahindru tightly, “You’re still too high!”
The other pilot’s voice came over the headset. “Prem, you mad bastard! Your wheels are almost on the ground.”
Mahindru nodded. “And so they should be. Come on, man, get down here!”
I snuck a look out of the side window. Baker-Two came swooping down behind us, wobbled, then steadied. I could see the white blobs of the three faces behind the screen; the pilot, the copilot, and Brook.
“Another track!” This was our copilot.
I looked and took a guess. “That’ll be the road to Kwamouth.” It was empty as far as I could see.
Mahindru said, “Then that first one must have been the Mushie road. Well navigated, colonel.”
I nodded. It had been pure luck and guesswork. The copilot resumed watch on the radar and I turned my attention to the landscape. Another river came up, headed obliquely across our course. It was not marked on Mahindru’s map and I couldn’t remember it. We sped over the grasslands at a rate that made my head spin. I did not have a clue as to what weird and wonderful method Mahindru employed in staying so close to the ground for mile after mile, without diving into it. It was almost mesmerizing.
Mahindru again told the second aircraft to get lower, and again the pilot said, “Holy Mother!”
To me, Mahindru said, “So you think the river is our best way in, Colonel.”
I dragged my eyes from the hypnotic effect of the blurred ground, flashing beneath us. “It’s the
way in. East of Kinshasa the countryside is just what you see in front of you, which is nothing, and they’ve got radar at Luana and Bankana. We’ve been lucky so far. Let’s not push it.”
He nodded. “You’re in charge, colonel. I may as well swing west now then, eh?”
“Any time you like. Keep west until you hit the Zaire, then follow it south. All you can do is stay low.” Quickly, I added a fervent, “As you are is fine. There’ll be plenty of river traffic at Malebo, I’m afraid. ‘Specially at Makula, which is the entrance to the Pool. Also, Makula has a customs post that I guess will be wide awake.”
Mahindru grunted and pressed the air-to-air transmit button. “Ranjid?”
“Yes?” The other pilot’s voice was noticeably strained.
“Coming to port. Two-eight-oh. Now!”
My stomach heaved as the world outside the cabin tilted, swung to the right, then steadied. I did not bother to check that the trailing chopper was still with us. This was their environment. And when we were finished I was going to be delighted to let them keep it. Mahindru said, “A problem, d’you think? The customs post?”
“Probably not. The fact that we’re unmarked will be too subtle a point for them. In this part of the world ninety-nine percent of air traffic is FZA. They might decide to make a token protest to FZA HQ, but by then we’ll be over the target.”
“Comforting,” said Mahindru.
I said, “Well, that’s the theory anyway.”
The copilot cut in. “Something moving to port, sir. On the scope. About fifteen miles out. Looks like a fixed wing job.” This to me, indicating the blip on the screen. “Shot onto the scope like a rocket. Now it’s circling.”
Mahindra said, “What do you think, colonel?”
I looked at the map. There was only one thing it could be. “That’s the Masia-Mbio flying club. Small fry.”
Mahindru nodded. “Keep your eyes on it, copilot.”
I swung round in the seat and took a look back into the cargo space. The sea of black faces reminded me of the river trip up from Lukolela. A couple of the men raised their hands to me. I waved back. Totally inconsequentially, I wondered how they were making out on the calls-of-nature front. I had managed to take a leak back at the river, and I had seen several others doing the same. Beyond that, anything else they couldn’t sort out themselves, in their own way, would have to be baked.
Mahindru announced, “The Zaire.”
I looked. He was right. There it sat in front of us like a dirt highway covered with silver confetti. Somewhere in my mind a voice said, The Road to Ruin. I had been wondering when the “stage fright” would make its appearance this time, and here it came now, as I looked down at that damned river, stretching south to Kinshasa and our appointment with Aaron Motanga. The slight tightening of the stomach muscles and an even slighter feeling of nausea. It was a feeling that would come whether I was thinking dangerous thoughts or not. It was as if something inside knew better than I when to start feeling scared. It would mount now, as the minutes passed by and the target drew closer, culminating, I knew only too well, in that split second of absolute terror and self-doubt, as the first bullet was fired in anger. Then, especially on full-scale actions, as this one promised to be, it would go away, leaving room for something else; something where fright and terror had no part. The Zulu calls it
The Divine Madness.
The Divine Madness.
It was a feeling, a compulsion, that gave you the certainty of invincibility. I had never been able to come to grips with it, to fathom it out. Except to say that it only came with the knowledge, the certainty, that you were about to die.
The Divine Madness
turned battles into bloodbaths, men into animals, lusting for blood and death. And it would not go away until sated.
“Cat” would say that it was a self-induced hatred. “If you can kill a man you
hate,” he would philosophize, “then you’re nothing but a bloody sadist! You’ve
to hate him, and with a passion, a burning desire. And
The Divine Madness
is nature’s remedy in war.” This kind of soul-baring would normally be the result of too many beers. And afterwards he would shrug it off. He did not like to be considered a deep thinker. “Anyway,” he would add, smiling apologetically, “that’s the way we French get away with murder. The Crime de Passione. The ultimate defense mechanism - for the soul...
for the jury!” Then he would deliberately belch. “And who’s a pompous bastard, eh?”
I looked down at my hands. They were steady. I rubbed them together. They were dry. I swallowed, and still could. This was only the beginning.
“Boat ahead.” said Mahindru.”
Piet Vryburg sat on the chair in front of the radio, waiting. The carrier wave hissed gently. He had his crossed feet on the table and the chair was tilted onto its back legs, balanced precariously. His head rested forward, chin on chest. His hands were clasped loosely in his lap and the cigarette in the fingers of his right hand smoldered away with an occasional sizzle of burning saltpeter. The smoke, blue tinted, rose like a thin, straight cord to the ceiling. He was not sleeping but he was close to it, negative reaction having unwound his system as effectively as a drug.
Outside, another football game had developed. Those members of Camp-One not actually playing or watching, and there were some one hundred and fifty spectators, were sitting around in groups haggling over dice.
Augarde lay on McCann’s bunk, staring up at the contour-lines of mould on the ceiling. A burst of cheering woke him from his reverie. He shifted his head and saw Vryburg’s back. To himself, he thought, “You’re going to collapse, chum. Sure as eggs are eggs, that chair is - “
The radio clicked. “Base...Base...Base.”
Vryburg lifted his feet from the table and the chair righted itself with a clatter. He flicked the cigarette out the door and touched the transmit button, leaning in to the microphone. “Go ahead.”
“We are here, Base.” It was Zwekki’s voice - the albino corporal.
“Okay,” said Vryburg, “Well, make yourselves comfortable. It’ll be hours yet.” He had sent Zwekki and a detail of men out to the landing area to relieve Kimba.
He rose up and walked to the door, fumbling in his pocket for another cigarette. He lit up and leant there watching the game rushing about amid the arrows of light piercing the foliage. It occurred to him that the seal may have been set for the future of Camp-One - that it could be used as an advance base in yet another prolonged mercenary war. He was not sure he relished the notion. Also, he was not certain that he really resented not having gone with McCann. Perhaps it was better this way...a gentle slide
of the mercenary business. He stretched. Surely to God there was more to life.
The game continued.
Someone called half-time.
Then Vryburg heard it. The steady whine of an aircraft...a helicopter. There was no mistaking that distinctive sound. But it was some way off and, from the sound of it, flying north to south. Vryburg hoped that Zwekki had obeyed his instructions and moved the vehicles under cover. He nodded. He would have done, and Kimba had already camouflaged the Chinese helicopter. He twisted his head and looked at the radio. Should he call? Just to make sure? The aircraft noise was fading. Then gone.
Augarde said, “FZA again. The same guy on his way home, I reckon.”
“Mmm,” replied Vryburg. He glanced back out the door in time to see the first man fall.
Then there was nothing
Over the headset I could hear Mahindru humming, squeezing out, some tuneless melody, the sound falling and swelling as if orchestrated with the violent movements of the aircraft. Keep low, I had said, and keep low he was doing. And hell and high water and yacht races notwithstanding, he was obviously going to keep to the letter of that instruction.
The Zaire River at Makulu was alive with tall masted craft with sails billowing. It was a regatta! A bloody boat race! And Mahindru had entered
in the damned event! It was absolute bloody chaos and I could find neither the breath nor the presence of mind to override my instruction. It was too late for that, anyway, so I just gripped the edges of the seats and held on tight, listening to Mahindru humming his intentions.
A tug loomed up, itself having difficulty finding a path through that moving maze of masts and sails. I saw a gap and hoped Mahindru had too. But it was filled before we reached it and my gut sank to my boots.
“mmmMMM!...the pai-ail mooonNNN...OOooon that exciIIIItesmmm...”
The flight deck lurched sickeningly. “Sorry about that,” said Mahindru. Then, “Get out of the bloody way, can’t you!” This, to a monster sail that came from nowhere. The registration letters MMP, burned themselves into my brain, then it was gone as we seemed to leap into the air. I closed my eyes then opened them again. Where the hell was the customs building? More sails. More violent evasive action. Then I saw it; a large, red-painted affair up on the south back amongst a row of white warehouses that hadn’t been there the last time I had. I yelled, “Get ready to swing to port.” The customs house disappeared and there was the Pool. “NOW!”
The horizon, just a blur, tipped, spun, then righted itself. Next the hospital. There! “Dead ahead! Up and over, pilot!”
“Up and over,” Mahindru acknowledged. He stopped humming and checked his mirror. “Good boy, Ranjid!”
The hospital fell away. A man on the roof ducked. There were faces at windows. Then there was the freeway, filled with traffic; buses, cars, trucks and cycles. Some pedestrians, faces upturned, mouths open. But mostly it was a blur. Beyond the freeway, trees and another road. More people. All looking up, pointing and waving. And there, on the skyline, the long white wall of the Luana garrison. I felt the bile rush to my throat and my heart was pumping wildly. I was trembling, as I always did. But that would go.
“That’s it!” I yelled to Mahindru. I depressed the air-to-air transmit button. “Brook!”
“Sir!” came the screamed reply.
“Break off now! There it is...Left...See it?” The radio mast.
“I see it. Breaking off!”
The wall swept beneath us and there was the compound laid out in front of the nose - the two-storey building, sun glinting off the windows like heliotropic messages; the out houses, the blockhouse, the orchard, the car park, several trucks and a few cars, and running figures. And the open space that was the parade ground.
Oh, sweet Jesus!
My stomach lurched. The area was
with men! It was a goddamned football match! I couldn’t believe it. First the regatta, now a bloody football match! But there it was, when the place should have been empty.
“Mind your heads!” cried Mahindru at I don’t know who, “I’m coming in!”
And he did, just as the waist gun opened up and the tracers flashed by the side window and into the milling, threshing crowd. I did not see Brook’s aircraft zoom in over the main building, nor the rain of grenades leaving the open belly door. But I heard the crashing explosions even above the hammering of our cannon and the screaming of the engine as Mahindru set us down heavily on the hard-baked soil.
Once, twice, we bounded back into the air before he regained some kind of control, the whole airframe shuddering and protesting treatment it had never been designed to withstand. Then the dust reared up to smother all vision.
Arnold Hewes did his best to appear impressed and interested, and he thought that he achieved it, if only by a whisker. The truth was that he was sickened by the whole amateurish, blundering, puffed-up affair. Oh, the operations room itself seemed proficient enough in its equipment and layout, but the personnel, of whom there were far too many for both real efficiency and comfort, appeared to have been brought in off the streets and thrown into other people’s uniforms. Mostly they collided with each other, picked things up and put them down again elsewhere, peered at expensive radar sets and transceivers and avionics displays as if they knew what they were looking at, fingering buttons and switches but doing absolutely nothing constructive with them. The whole thing was all-too obviously an impress-the-visitor charade.
The room itself was windowless, as operations rooms should be, and there was a well-lit map-wall onto which light-dots were projected. It was on two levels separated vertically by a set of stairs. On the lower level, the nuts and bolts level, some twenty or so uniformed bodies, men and women, were crammed onto a floor space that should have accommodated no more than six or seven at the
most. Some were Asians, most were black Africans. The higher level, where Hewes, Motanga, Nglabi Lutope and two men to whom Hewes had not been introduced sat, contained a table, five chairs and a coffee/tea dispenser which had been positioned so that it half covered an apparently operating avionics display of a type Hewes had seen in some U.S. operations rooms. The ash tray on the table was filled to overflowing, the table itself littered with discarded plastic cups. The atmosphere was cloyingly hot and sticky, evidence of a
-operational air conditioning system.
The same thoughtless reasoning that had placed the beverage dispenser in its current position, had also – but with far worse consequences later – sealed the second and only other access to the operations room. This second door led upstairs to the roof. At least, it
to lead upstairs to the roof. Now it led nowhere. Motanga had, some time ago, complained of a draft which was eventually traced to that second door. And, since access to the roof could be readily obtained from at least three other locations, that entrance had been sealed, permanently. This act of stupidity, plus some exploding grenades, sealed all their fates.
They had watched the dots on the map-wall converge upon a marked area, and they had heard Craig Harding’s voice over the tannoy saying; “...Introducing...” The dots had continued north for a space, then had turned south. Some time later Harding had said, “Operation complete.” Motanga had looked vaguely disappointed at something and had ordered sandwiches to be brought in. They sat now, waiting. For something to say Hewes mentioned that he thought the area – the target area – comprised mostly of trees.
Motanga guffawed. “Trees!” He nudged Lutope with a stove-pipe elbow. “Trees, Nglabi.” He came back to Hewes. “That whole area, mister Hewes, is Central Africa. They are not merely trees, they are colossi!” His smile disappeared. He added, “And swampland.” And then he dropped his bombshell, a bombshell that, had circumstances been different, would have proved the perfect foil to the American’s aspirations in Zaire.
“A thought occurs, mister Hewes,” he said in a new tone.
“Oh?” responded Hewes, biting into his sandwich, “Which is what, sir?”
Motanga appeared slightly confused. “It is
business, of course, and I do not wish to pry. But, how do you propose to verify the...the, ah, the efficaciousness, or otherwise, of your, um, your magic potion?” He hurried on, shrugging hugely, “I am merely curious, you understand.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“Ah!” said Motanga knowingly, tapping the side of his nose significantly, Jewish-style. “I fully comprehend, sir. That is for you to know, and for the rest of us to guess, eh? Very wise.” He turned to Lutope, as if to begin another topic with him.
Hewes was perplexed. Verify? What the hell did the man mean? Verify? Why would you need to verify several hundred dead bodies? A dead body is a dead body. “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t quite follow.”
Motanga turned. His expression said that he was trying to recall what it was they had been discussing. Then he appeared to remember. He repeated his question, rather more slowly and precisely than was called for.
Hewes said what was in his mind. “Simplicity itself, mister president. By this evening, as I told you, the...ah!” He thought he understood what the man was getting at. He was concerned about possible contamination by MSB2Z. “Well,” he went on, “In the morning I will send my men back up there. A photograph or two?” he added nonchalantly. “Then you can send some of your people up there later, and they can see for themselves.”
Motanga’s face slid easily through several shades of disbelief, and he sat back in his chair as if utterly dumbfounded. “My good God!” he breathed, “I cannot believe it.”
“Believe what, sir?” asked Hewes, at a total loss.
Motanga stared at Hewes the way a teacher might stare at a pupil who had just claimed that Africa was in the Arctic Ocean. “Mister Hewes,” he said at last, “Why is it, would you assume, that we did not move our troops up there in the first place? Why – would you
...” His tone dripped unconcealed ridicule now. “...did I not send three thousand picked troops to wipe out a force of a puny three hundred or so mercenaries?”
Hewes shrugged. “Well, I – “
mister Hewes, interrupted Motanga, his face set in granite now, “the place is totally inaccessible! It is the very heart of the swamplands! And the way
is known only to those mercenaries themselves.
mister Hewes, was why I agreed to the proposal set by the British, who were to deliver this mercenary force into
cannot verify the effects of your gas, mister Hewes, so it is up to – “
And at that moment the two SAF helicopters roared in over the high walls of the compound and the men at the waist cannons opened fire.
I pushed out past the man at the waist cannon into a maelstrom of dust and noise. The blast of the downdraft hit me like a vertical tornado and I staggered like a drunken man in the whipping, biting dust storm. The chopper was already clawing itself back into the air; a mind-numbing cacophony of banshee jets and thumping rotor blades. I stepped forward to try and get out of the dust and
something, collided with a running figure and went over all arms and legs, the weight of the ammo belts and grenade strings hauling me down. I caught a momentary glimpse of tracer zipping through the cloud and was conscious of one of the chopper’s wheels passing, shuddering, within inches of my face. And for several seconds the world was nothing but swirling dust and debris and yammering noise. I was beyond stage fright now, beyond nerves and fear. I was thinking; forty-four men against a football match crowd.
God help us!
The trouble with command is that you have to keep part of your brain free to think with. The enlisted man simply
And while I was crawling around like a blind zombie I hoped they were doing just that -
I had the crowd pegged, which was something. They would be mostly from some other barracks, here for the match. I doubted they would have brought loaded weapons with them. It was a reasonable bet, anyway.
Then, suddenly, there was the sun. I blinked my eyes clear of the dust and hauled myself to my feet, AK ready for whatever presented itself. I saw in front of me a scene of utter pandemonium. The men of Red-One section stood, shoulder to shoulder, in a loose arc. Their weapons blazed into the milling, surging, screaming horde of tan-uniformed men. They fell like nine pins under that scything rain of bullets.
“H.M.G.!” I yelled.
“Sir!” The first two-man team stood behind me, exactly according to the briefing in the chopper.
“Cover the blockhouse until Red-One get there.”
The two men hared away through the confusion, one hefting the heavy BAR - Browning Automatic Rifle - the other laden down with three boxes of belted ammo. I looked around for Red-Two. I saw them, disappearing into the trees of the orchard, firing from the hip as they ran. There was no shortage of targets. The chopper was pulling away now, dragging the dust cloud with it, the cannon hosing tracer down onto a target on the far side of the trees. I turned my scattered attention back to the killing ground that should not have been there. I expended my AK in a long burst, the spent casing flying into the air like glittering stars. I ejected, then rammed home another charge. The wall on the far side of the “pitch” seemed afire, but not with flames, it was afire with torn and powdered plaster from the misses. Seconds passed, seconds lost utterly in that daze of slaughter. I fired, and fired, then changed mags and fired again, and for a while my mind could cope only with the sight and the sounds of the tan-uniformed men running and falling. And then it was over.
Bodies lay scattered everywhere, some writhing in gathering pools of their own blood, most still. As if on some psychic command the guns of Red-One fell silent; a smoking, hot silence. They turned to me, their expressions those of wild men, eyes wide and glinting in the sun, the smiles so deadly as to be pain-wracked grimaces, the flesh almost grey with sweat-caked dust. To a man they had daubed their faces with the white stripes of the Kangatzi war symbol, reminding me of Simbas I had faced in battle. I knew exactly where they were, how they had gotten there, and what it would now take to bring them back to normalcy again.