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Authors: Larry Johns

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BOOK: Place of Bones
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Brown said nothing. He focused his eyes on a point midway between me and the wall behind me and just sat there.

I went on, “It’s that you think I’m your man.”

Brown spoke then. “Will you do it?”

My laugh was more a short bark of incredulity. “You’re giving me a
choice?

Brown and Ian exchanged glances. What that meant I did not know. “Well, mister bloody British intelligence,” I spat, “you can stuff your schedule of times and targets! And you can wipe your arse on the small fortune. I’m a mercenary soldier, not a goddamned mass murderer!”

Ian addressed himself to me personally for the first time. “Is there really that much difference, colonel?”

Had I obeyed my first instinct I would have dived at his throat. Was there a difference! Jesus! I felt stale. Did they really believe that all mercenaries were like that?

The third man’s W/T crackled into life then and the air of tension was frozen.

“Position one,” stuttered the handset.

The man lifted it to his head. “Yes, one?”

“About a third through,” said the metallic voice. “You’ve got about twenty minutes. Questions are being asked here, but as yet no-one’s getting desperate.”

“Okay. Keep us posted.” The man allowed the handset to fall to his lap, his eyes fixed firmly on Brown.

To me, Brown said, “Twenty minutes, colonel. That is as long we have to reach agreement. If you are not with the other passengers when they finally enter the main concourse, where your Chinese friends are waiting, then the cat, as they say, will be out of its bag. And the one and
only
way you get to leave this room, minus handcuffs and the promise of a million years behind bars is for us to be agreed in principal. If this proves impossible, then your arrest will become official by Congolese standards.”

I laughed again, but this also was not a laugh. “On what charges, for Christ’s sake!”

“Oh,” said Brown, pulling a concerned face, “Didn’t I tell you? You are a gun-runner, colonel.” He turned to Ian. “What is it he will be carrying, Ian?”

Ian said, “Two sub machine guns. A quantity of plastic explosive. Half a dozen hand grenades, and photographs of half the members of the National Assembly.”

My anger compressed itself into a small, hard knot somewhere in the pit of my stomach, as Brown swung his eyes back to me. “Tut tut, colonel,“ he said, shaking his head in pseudo admonishment. “Now that’s naughty. It’s also a capital offense here in the Congo.” His wry smile and raised eyebrows said: Check, I think!

I looked at him and he looked at me. I turned and looked at Ian, who looked away. And the man with the W/T was suddenly interested in the wallpaper. For several seconds I did not have a single positive thought in my head. I felt out-gunned and didn’t like it. In a sudden rush of something or other I dropped the cigarette onto the carpet and heeled it to death.

Brown’s steely gaze dropped to the floor for an instant. He might have smiled thinly, but it could also have been a grimace. He lifted a shoulder. “If it makes you feel any easier, colonel, we did not single you out for this assignment. Not in the way you imply. It is quite simply that you were the man the Chinese dragged in. Had they persuaded the Pope’s brother to work for them, it would be he sitting here now and not you.”

“Then get him,” I said dully; because that was how I felt; dull, edgeless and impotent.

“Who?” asked Brown seriously, missing my lame attempt at sarcasm.

“The Pope’s brother.”

His expression slid into one of exasperated patience. “Understand this, colonel. The Chinese cannot be allowed a foothold in Central Africa. Such an event would be tantamount to disaster for the west. And we are willing, nay,
more
than willing, to countenance any action, however distasteful, to prevent it.”

Dull I may have been, but I had Brown and his cronies pegged. I said, “West schmest!  This has sod-all to do with your paranoid fear of a communist resurgence. This is dollars and cents, it always is with you cloak and dagger merchants. You’ve made a scratch-my-back deal with Motanga. Any third year student could tell you that unless he can get a vote-catcher come next year’s elections, he’s washed up. That same student will also tell you that of all the possible candidates for the Zaire hot-seat, Motanga is the white man’s best bet,
your
best bet! He’s the devil you already know. And what was the deal? Mining concessions? It usually is.” With the bit between my teeth now, as opposed to rammed down my gullet, I went on, “You don’t need me; not for this threat of yours. If that was your angle you could end it here and now. You profess to know so goddam much about the set-up. Okay - throw the spanner in now! Before
anyone
gets into Zaire!”

Brown rattled off a short parradiddle on the desk top with the fingers of his right hand. “You are wrong, colonel. We cannot move against your future command here in the Congo, much as we’d like to...and before you jump in with both feet, the
we
I use here includes several other interested parties I could, but will not, name. And we cannot do it, for the very simple reason that the Congolese administration refuses to admit to its presence within its borders.” He shrugged hugely. “Oh, they cooperated with us for the purposes of this little charade, certainly. But this is as far as they are prepared to venture. You see, they are in the proverbial cleft stick. The Bank of China - in parenthesis, of course - releases a very great deal of money into their economy. Cleverly-placed money. Crucial money. Life blood, so to speak.” He smiled a taut smile. “It’s the old Nelson syndrome, colonel - the convenient blind eye. We all suffer from it now and again. All of which means that eventually, whether you are in command, or someone else is, that small army of mercenaries will find its dangerous way into Zaire. Perhaps not to this - this Camp-One - because I am told that very few of you people know the key to its exact whereabouts - but into the country certainly. And, as a man well schooled in the art of jungle fighting, you will know that no normal ambush, and certainly no normal action, can hope to be one hundred percent successful. A percentage, greater or smaller, will survive to regroup, to fight again. What we, the west - sneer if you like...”

I had sneered.

“...what we need is an eradication of the Chinese threat, once and for all time. You are sitting there simply because conditions, at this precise moment in time, are ripe for it.” He hunched a shoulder. “The fact that we also stand to gain certain...yes, certain mining concessions from it, is neither here nor there, believe it or not. A certain icing on the cake. A deal has been made, yes. But it is secondary to the real issue.”

I sneered again. “Like hell it is! What - ” Then I suddenly had another thought. “Incidentally,” I changed tack, “What’s to stop me agreeing to what you ask, then disappearing into the wild, blue yonder? Better yet, what’s to stop me doing a
triple,
with the Chinese? The minute I leave this - “

“Your daughter,” Brown cut in smoothly, stifling a sigh, “Karen, I think her name is. Currently studying to be a nurse at the Saint Joan Nursing College in Johannesburg. A lovely young thing, so I’m led to believe. And very promising; as a student nurse, that is.”

Rarely have I experienced moments like that; once when I was watching a horror movie as a kid; again in Vietnam when the slants decapitated a very close friend right alongside me; again in Angola when I saw the remains of a man who had been crucified then systematically skinned alive. And then, when Karen’s name appeared on the lips of that man. The sap, almost as a physical thing, drained out of my upper body and seemed to bloat my legs. I managed to croak, “What has Karen got to do with any of this?” But I really did not want to know.

Part of my shock was that hardly anyone knew I even had a daughter, let alone what her name was and what she was doing, and where. A few close friends was all - I thought!

Brown sucked in a long breath, his expression nondescript. “At present? Nothing. I hope it suffices to say that we know she exists.”

“Meaning what?” I demanded shakily.

Brown met my glare. “As I say, hopefully absolutely nothing.” But his eyes told a very different story. I was later to wonder why it was I hadn’t felt the urge to jump for
his
throat, as I had when Ian rammed a personal barb into me. Any other father would have done that, I’m certain. Why didn’t I? I just felt numb.

“You’ll have to go the whole hog, Brown,” I said at last. “You’ll have to tell me what will happen to Karen if I don’t play along.”

They told me.

Checkmate!

 

TWO

 

I stepped out of the door marked “Visas” as the crowd was siphoning through the immigrations barrier to the customs hall. No-one noticed me. No-one so much as looked at me. Everyone was in varying degrees of dishevelment. I loosened my tie and lifted one wing of my collar. Then, as the queue slowed to negotiate the customs bottleneck, I did what they all seemed to be doing; I started to straighten myself up again.

“Bloody liberty!” mumbled the man in front of me; to anyone he thought might be listening. He shot me a doleful glare.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

As the queue shuffled messily forward I began to think about Karen.

Everyone has periods of their life they wish they had handled differently, some self-styled event they occasionally have nightmares about. The “skeleton”. Mine, despite some of the horrors I have witnessed, even perpetrated, was how Karen came to be part of this world. Though I am certain that her nightmares are more horrific. I am also certain that she is about as proud of her father as it is possible
not
to be.

Karen was the innocent result of what, on my part at least, was a brief, inconsequential affair with an American nurse called Nancy Goulden; close to sixteen years ago in Durban. I had been wounded in a border action against nationalist insurgents and sent to Durban’s military hospital to have a bullet removed from my thigh. It was during the convalescent period after the operation that I met, and subsequently bedded the impressionable 23 year old Virginian, in Africa on a field mission for some stateside charity organization. It was a long time before I realized just how impressionable Nancy actually was. She had been a virgin which, at the time, had pleased my ego greatly. Some men are born thick and stupid; others have to work hard at it. Both were true of me.

When I returned to active service I had some pretty lewd tales to tell of my deft handling of my first virgin in years. And I told them. Reveling in it. And whilst I was telling them, Nancy was carrying Karen, and writing me daily letters which I would receive periodically by the bundle. I did not read many of them, but in those that I did glance through there was never a mention of her pregnancy. Eventually I did not even bother opening them. I did reply once, but only to tell her that she was wasting her time, and her life. I was a mercenary soldier, I told her, and would never be anything else. But the letters kept coming, even following me on up to Angola, my next country of employment. To my lasting shame those bundles of letters became a drag even to toss onto the nearest fire. As I say; some men have to work hard at being stupid.

Then, two years after Durban, and via a mutual acquaintance, I received a photograph. It was of a baby wrapped in a hand-crocheted shawl. Nancy had written the words Nancy McCann in one corner. Nothing else. No letter. Nothing. And the man who had delivered it could tell me nothing either.

My first thoughts were, to say the least of it, uncharitable; the girl was trying it on. It was someone else’s baby. The real father had abandoned them and Nancy was merely looking for someone to name the baby after. And I waited for the crunch letter to arrive.

But no such letter did arrive. In fact, no more letters reached me at all. And that was when I began to brood. Could the child be mine? And, more to the point, did I give a damn?

Stupid doesn’t cover it.

Imbecilic comes closer to the mark.

I wrote Nancy’s last address; what the hell was it all about? I received no reply. I wrote again. Still no reply. I brooded on. A shade too late, to be sure, but I brooded.

Then, four years later, when I was stationed at the mercenary base at Kinshasa, they arrived at the gates, out of the blue, mother and child. In the middle of hell on wheels!  It was an experience well outside my comprehension.

Nancy insisted she wanted nothing from me. She only wanted me to see our daughter in the flesh. They were on their way back to the States, where they were going to live with Nancy’s parents, and the stopover - stopover! - had not been hard to arrange. Don’t worry, she kept insisting, they were just passing through, “...but I had to let you see her, just once...”

At all events, in the four days they were there - I had arranged a room for them in the officer’s quarters - I came to realize the truth; that Karen was truly my own flesh and blood.

Fate has a hand in everything.

On the afternoon of that fourth day the Simbas attacked in force. The garrison held but was blasted to hell and back. Nancy was buried beneath several tons of rubble. Karen survived. In a nutshell, I resigned my commission for a year and took her back to South Africa. I tried to do it properly, as God’s my witness. But I just didn’t have it in me. I still don’t. Karen ended up in a foster home and I ended up back in the mercenary business. Eventually I managed to place her in a well known School for Young Ladies in Johannesburg. And, after that, the Saint Joan Nursing College.

I receive a letter from her once, sometimes twice a year, which I answer in some depth. Even old dogs can learn. I also get progress reports from the college. Brown was right; she shows a great deal of promise. We meet occasionally when I’m down that way. But they are desultory, strained meetings, at which neither of us can find much to say.

Love? I just don’t know. I know of the love one man can have for another in a pitched battle situation, where flying bullets and shrapnel take second place to a life that can be saved. But this kind of love is unexplainable, instinctive. I am rock certain that I do not understand the other kind. Karen is my flesh and blood, whatever I am, whatever I feel. But will I, can I, ever be a real father? God alone knows.

“Ah, mister McCann. At last! Welcome!”

I was wrenched from my thoughts to the realization that I had passed through the barriers and was in the main concourse. A pretty Chinese girl stood in front of me, her hand outstretched. With an effort, I forced myself to concentrate on the business at hand. Only time would reveal if I could or would sacrifice the lives of three hundred men on the altar of my conscience; and Karen was that altar.

Brown had already told me that Chi Luang was not one of the people waiting for me, but that of the three who were, one was a girl. She was in her mid-twenties, I guessed, as I took the proffered hand, and dressed in a neat, very business-like beige skirt suit. Her shoulder length, jet black hair flicked effortlessly back into perfect place after she straightened from her oriental bow. Her make up had been lightly, artfully applied, and on looks alone I had her down as some VIP’s personal secretary. On feel I had her down as something else entirely; her hands were almost leather-like to the touch and her grip belied her size and diminutive stature. I have shaken hands like those before, but mostly on men. Her eyes also, close up, were at odds with her general appearance. They smiled, certainly, but in nervous snatches. In between times it was as if she had never smiled before in her short life. I thought about trying to read her expression for any suspicions she may have had about what had taken place. But I discarded the notion as a waste of effort. What would be would be. All I could do was play along with the cover story.

“Glad you could wait,” I said, injecting a note of irony into my tone. “Sorry ‘bout that. I hit one the last time around, too.”

The smile flashed again. “Most inconvenient, sir.”  Her accent was near-perfect. Perhaps too perfect for her to have been born and raised in China. “And no fun after a long flight. My name is Mai Chan. I will be your assistant whilst you are with us.”

“Right,” I said, briefly. I could go along with the cover story, but was in no mood to underscore it with small talk for the benefit of possible listening ears. “Do you have a car for me?”

“One is waiting, sir...Oh, Sammy will take your case.”

“Sammy” was a burly African dressed in jeans and sweatshirt. He had the appearance of a gofor but, as with the girl, his eyes talked in a different language; and they were everywhere but on me. He relieved me of the case and disappeared into the crowd.

“If you will follow me, sir,” said the girl. She led the way towards the crush of milling bodies at the concourse exit. The air was heavy with the smell of stale sweat; a lot of which I was personally responsible for. “I do hope we have not organized too rigorous a schedule for you, mister McCann,” Mai Chan went on over her shoulder as we surged through the doors and into the sunshine. She was playing to a gallery that may or may not have been there and, for my money, overacting. “Mister Saitung, our new branch president, would like you to lunch with him before you meet the investment board, to brief you on the current economic climate. But I will take you first to your hotel where you can freshen up after your flight. We have a suite for you at the Holiday Inn. Will that be satisfactory, sir?”

Now I had the feeling that she was playing to a very specific audience, but I was damned if I could see it. The crowd had fanned out and thinned now and the car park, towards which we were headed, was almost deserted. I said, “Fine,” in a normal voice, and left it at that. I could not see the supposed third member of the reception committee, but guessed he would be around somewhere. Brown appeared nothing if not thorough.

As we walked, at something of a rocketing pace, I glanced over the open space at the old police fort, except that it was not there anymore. It had been a mess, in any case, the last time I had seen it; the result of our lobbing thirty or so mortar shells into it. Prior to that it had been quite a handsome building. In point of fact, there was nothing I recognized about the area; a few new structures going up here and there, in varying degrees of completion, plus several mounds of rubble that may well have been all that remained of the army barracks, but that could just as easily have been mounds of builder’s debris.

The car was a current model dark blue Renault with tinted windows. I could see the vague outline of a man behind the wheel. The third member, probably. Sammy had the trunk open and was stowing my case. The girl opened one of the rear doors and the sound of the car’s stereo escaped into the atmosphere. I was about to ask why it had to be so loud when the girl, her mouth set in a tight smile, hissed, “Say nothing, colonel. Just get in the car. We have a directional microphone trained on us!”

I was quick on
that
uptake; but, as I climbed in, the sight of a man sprawled on the floor between the front and rear seats, did faze me for a moment. He was a European in a business suit, and he beckoned me in with an urgent gesture. Perhaps it was the tension trying to find a way out, I don’t know, but I had an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh at it all. I wanted to yell at them that it was all useless and stupid; that the gaff was blown in any case. Why the man was sprawled there, I didn’t know, but it seemed ridiculous, senseless. Even childlike.

“Get in, for God’s sake!” spat the man.

I climbed in. Wearily. Mai Chan nudged me further over on the seat and climbed in beside me, as Sammy slid in beside the driver who, mercifully, brought the stereo down to a more normal level.

“Please do exactly as you are told, colonel,” said the girl, which had me wondering how many times a day I would hearing that instruction. “When we pull out of the car park we will drive into that street.” She pointed. I looked, nodded, and reserved judgment. “The car will stop. You will immediately get out and this car will drive on. Another car, a red Volvo estate headed the opposite direction, will stop. The door will open and you will get in.” Then, to the driver, “Go, Ranjid!”

We slid forward and headed for the exit. The girl went on, “All this is vitally important, colonel. Please treat it as such. Mister Luang will be in the other car. He will explain.”

Cops and Robbers, I thought. The classic “switch”. The man on the floor was to be me. I looked down at him. He smiled crookedly up at me. “Welcome to the Congo, sir. Land of opportunity and stealth. I don’t always travel this way, but when - “

“Shut up!” spat the girl, and he shut up. “Get ready, colonel. We are almost there.”

The driver swung the car into the designated street, rolled on for a few yards, then stopped hard.

“Go! Go!” yelled the girl.

As I slid across the seat I saw the red Volvo cruising down the road towards us. There was no other traffic about. Neatly done, I thought. As I swung my legs out the door my heel caught the European’s shoulder and I heard his grunt of pain. But before I could mutter an apology the girl yelled for the driver to go on, and the Renault was off and away, the door banging shut in flight. The Volvo stopped opposite me, its front passenger door open. I spared a second to glance up and down the street. Shops, and more heaps of rubble. The shops were still shuttered. A man on a cycle appeared at the far intersection, crossed, and was gone. There was no-one else in sight.

“Colonel!” called a voice from the Volvo. “Quickly!”

I loped over the road and climbed in. Chi Luang, the man who had contacted me in Crete, was behind the wheel. I closed the door behind me and we moved forward, at a normal speed. “I apologize for all this, colonel.” said Luang. “But you will see that it was not without good reason.”

Chi Luang was an “Odd-Job” character; from the Bond movies. Big everywhere, but not fat, with a small mandarin style moustache and a completely bald, or was it shaven? head. Unlike the film character, Luang had an open, friendly face. He smiled continually and without apparent effort. In Crete he had talked politics for a long time over drinks and had surprised me by coming across as closer to a liberal than a communist. There was good and bad, he had said, on both sides of the divide. A trite line, to be sure, but coming from him it had sounded fresh and hopeful. He certainly did not impress me as a man who hated the west simply because it was the west. In fact, I did not think he hated anyone. He was either a true “citizen of the world,” or the world’s best actor. Politics leaves me cold, but I was glad I had listened to him. If only so I would know who I was working for. Fanatics - and I have worked for enough of those - are a danger to everyone around them.

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