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Authors: Larry Johns

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I nodded. At the good eight knots we were now making, despite the encumbrance of the dumb-barge, which had a nasty habit of taking the laws of river navigation into its own hands at the worst moments, we could be past Bomango by nightfall. The following morning, given some moonlight, we could be at the Giri Rapids, where we would leave the vessels and cut south-east through the forests - a forty kay trek to Makanza. I knew there would be no signs now of the trail I had hacked so long ago. Man-made trails barely survive a few days in that kind of country. But where one was possible before, it would be again. I said, “What’s the name of that cook?”

“Dondo, sir”

“Have him brew something hot for the men, then break out some rations. After they’ve eaten give them some exercise or something. They’ve been sitting like that for thirty-six hours.”

Augarde nodded and glanced around at the men. “Special breed, I reckon, sir. Christ alone knows where the Chink dug them up...”  He waved at one of them and rattled off a burst of fairly fluent Swahili.” I was impressed.

“Where did you pick
that
up?”

“Oh,” he said, smiling, “Here and there. Mostly here...” Then he added, “I was with Cassidy’s mob, sir. Back in eighty-five. Craig Mellor used to talk about you. He was 2 i/c.”

I thought briefly about Piet Vryburg, but didn’t dwell on it. He either would, or he wouldn’t. “Mellor was a good soldier. Is he still around?”

Augarde shrugged. “Don’t know, sir. Probably. We lost touch after Angola. “Sweep” Cassidy is still at home...”  That was a trite mercenary term for “still in Africa”. “Up north somewhere, someone said. Morocco or Algeria, I think. Did you know Cassidy?”

I didn’t, though I had heard the name. “Nope.”

He grinned. “Bastard, that man. Gave fourteen of our wounded the bullet...”  His gaze wandered off to the middle distance for a moment, and then he came back to me. “What’s the gen on this operation, sir?”

“What have you already been told?”

“Not a lot, sir. We know it’s something for the Chinks...you’ve only got to look at the crates to see that. But that’s all.” He saw the look on my face, which was nothing more significant than clawing tiredness, and he misinterpreted it entirely. “Sorry, sir,” he snapped, stiffening almost to attention. “Me an’ my big mouth!”

One of the things I liked about Augarde was his lack of the customary swearing. There were not too many of his kind on the African circuit. Mercenary NCOs  - he wore sergeant’s stripes on the arms of a uniform that had obviously been with him since regular service -  would be the brash, over-bearing, bullying kind; a by-product of mercenary warfare, obeyed by the rank and file but mostly uncommanding of any real respect. Of course, it remained to be seen how this man would turn out. But, on the surface, he seemed okay. The two other whites I had hardly exchanged two words with. One of these was a Swede, the other a Londoner. I avoid making snap decisions where possible, but I had the feeling that I was not going to like the Swedish contingent one little bit.

“Forget it,” I said. “In any case, if I told you what
I
know, you still wouldn’t be that much further forward. The big cheese is flying in later; I guess we’ll all be fully briefed then.”

Again, it seemed to me, Augarde failed to recognize the truth in my eyes. And it
was
the truth, in a perverse sort of way; I really did not know what I was going to do.

“Right, sir,” he snapped crisply. “I’ll see to the men, then...” He turned.

“Augarde,” I said quietly.

He hesitated. “Sir?”

“It’s no big deal, you know. Just another job.”

I don’t know how he took that but, outwardly, he smiled. “Right...” He added, “Exercises, you say...”

“Why not?”

And it was exercise that the men aboard the tug “Fat Annie” received, the shallow drafted vessel rocking noticeably as forty grinning mercenaries, packed like tuna fish on the forward deck, jerked left and right, up and down, to Augarde’s commands and over-stressed example. I knew then that of all the decisions I had ever taken in my life, the impending one would be the hardest. Could I believe that Brown would really hurt Karen? Or was he relying on the mere threat of it? Could the S.I.S. - the bloody British, or chrissakes! - could they, would they spray acid in her face? The mafia, yes. Blackmail and extortion were tools of their trade, murder and mutilation a specialty. But the British? The more I turned it over in my mind, the more unlikely it seemed. Or was it wishful thinking.

Well, I figured, I had something like a month to find the answer to that double-barreled question. Luang had estimated six to seven weeks before he would be ready to strike, during which time I would try to mold the men into some kind of a unit; plus do some specific training; plus be ready to send out the odd skirmishing party, courtesy of a helicopter Luang said he could lay on. For the other side, Brown reckoned that Motanga would be ready to receive the “sacrifice” in about
four
weeks. If the answer to one part of my question came out: yes, I did believe that Brown would carry out his threat, then would come the hard bit - could I lead these men into the Isanga valley? I looked at their sweating, grinning faces, bouncing up and down like a bunch of boy scouts, and I wondered. I also wondered what Piet Vryburg would be likely to say about it. Could I even tell him; assuming he arrived at all. So many questions, and my mind was just not ready to grapple with them.

Augarde kept them at it for over half an hour, falling them out when Dondo announced that he had food for them. They were still laughing and chatting like idiots - probably dissecting the whole thing - as they attacked the tins of ten-in-one. In no way did they resemble the killers that most of them were.

No small number of them were of the Kangatzi tribes, against whom the FZA -
Forces Zairoises
Armoises
- was engaged in Zaire’s own brand of holocaust. The Kangatzi were to Zaire what the Jews had been to Nazi Germany, though for wildly different reasons. The Kangatzi, native to the north-east region of Zaire, were basically hunters, and for reasons of its own the Zaire administration had outlawed hunting; at least on the scale the Kangatzi did it. This was no hardship for most other tribes, but it was an affront to the heritage of the Kangatzi - or so they claimed. At all events, it was this that first lighted the flames of insurrection. The Kangatzi also had something of a taste for human flesh, if only for ceremonial purposes. This, definitely, did not go down well in modern-day Zaire. As a matter of prestige in the eyes of the world the FZA had been charged with the task of wiping these cannibals from the face of the earth!

This made the Kangatzi prime candidates for any mercenary recruiter.

Also, a lot of the men were Simbas, against whom I had once fought so bitterly, and on whose doorstep - if I felt inclined to split hairs - lay Nancy’s death. I did not feel like splitting hairs. If I had, I might first have remembered that it had been the Simbas who had cut off “Cat” Souchet’s balls and sewn them into his mouth. These men had no real grudge against Aaron Motanga; the man they fought so bloodily to install. They were mercenaries purely because they had learned, had been taught, to fight with weapons, and had also learned that they liked the experience. And there were only so many men the Zaire pocket could afford to enlist in the FZA!

There would also be the usual smattering of wanted men; murderers, rapists and thieves - this latter applying as much to the white mercenary as the black. In African mercenary warfare it never does to delve too deeply, if at all, into the pedigree of the men under you.

It was one of the Kikuyu however, the helmsman, who finally put an end to the horseplay on deck, by storming out the wheelhouse, as red in the face as his black skin would allow, and launching into a tirade that taxed my knowledge of that language to its limit. I gathered that he found himself unable to concentrate on navigation with a bunch of birth-giving women screaming and shouting in front of him. Stifling a grin, I turned to study the river as the men, somewhat sheepishly, resumed their crouching positions on deck, the chatter subdued to a low throaty murmur, Augarde stepped alongside me.

“Shall I give him a rocket, sir?”

“Who?” Then I realized who he meant, and why. “No, forget it. Probably did his blood pressure a world of good.” It was not the best practice to allow a ranker to bawl at other rankers when there were officers in the vicinity, whose task it would be to do that. And discipline, in a mercenary outfit, was harder-won than in a regular command. But there are times and occasions…

Augarde nodded, smiling. “Good fun, that, sir.”

Despite my earlier black thoughts, Augarde’s good humour was infectious, and I found my surface emotions agreeable as we stood and watched the river bank slip past. He rested his AK against the coaming and took out his cigarettes, offering the packet to me. “Smoke, sir?”

I took one and lit up. We smoked in silence for a while as the sun climbed higher in the sky and the air grew more humid and clammy. Against my normal practice I decided to try and get a better picture of the other whites, through Augarde. “What do you know of Bjoran and Brook?”

Augarde shrugged. “Brook’s not a bad type. Ex-Marine. D.D.’d...”  Dishonourably Discharged. “Did eleven years with the regiment, so he told me. Recruited in S.A., same as me. Ad job, sir. Normal routine. Bjoran is something else again. Don’t know what his story is. Doesn’t talk much. Did you know he gutted one of the Simbas back in Brazza?”

Luang had told me about that. Apparently the Simba had gotten drunk one night and had promptly brought one of the local girls, a thirteen year old, back to the temporary encampment, where he had raped her then offered her around at a price. The problem was not so much one of morals, if it was that at all, as it was of the danger to security. On the night in question Bjoran had been in charge of the mostly Chinese guards. The Simba had not only been able to slip out past Bjoran’s position, he had also been able to slip back in again, and with the girl! All of which pointed to the Swede having been asleep; or as drunk as the Simba. So his, Bjoran’s, reaction would certainly be one of acute embarrassment, rather than a retribution for the offence
per se
. And I have long learned to live with such forms of punishment and torture under battlefield conditions. Captured mercenaries are invariably gutted and left to die, so it’s impossible to forbid the practice in your own men. It may not be what you want, or what you would do yourself. But there on that bloodbath of a continent it was accepted practice. Take it or leave it. Having said all that, it was rare for a man to take the bayonet to a direct subordinate. I said, “Yes, I heard.”

Augarde nodded. “It’s probably not my place to say so, sir. But I’d watch him like a hawk. He doesn’t like Simbas, that’s for sure. I suppose he had every reason to duff the poor sod up, maybe a lot of reason. But not to gut him.”

I said, “Hmmm” in a fairly noncommittal tone. Augarde had spoken in a matter-of-fact sort of way, without obvious rancor, but with professional concern. That was not
his
way of doing things, he seemed to be saying, but, since he had been asked...

“Anything else?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Can’t think of anything. In any case,” he added, shuffling his feet, “it’s probably better that you find out for yourself. Who knows, sir, Bjoran might turn out to be a hell of a scrapper in the field. And that’s where it counts. Right, sir?”

I flicked the cigarette stub out over the side. “Right.”

“Oh, there is one other thing, sir.”

“Give it to me.”

“One of the Kangatzi, sir. He was with me on the Cassidy contract. He might be worth a bump up to platoon leader. He’s a handy boy...He, ah, he asked me to put in a word.”

Which was fair enough. It was the mercenary system. “Where is he?”

“On the barge, sir.”

“Okay. Have him report to me when we’re settled.”

“I’ll do that, sir. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.”

I grunted. “If I am, you will be, too.” I hoped my smile robbed the remark of its possible sting. It appeared to.

“Right, sir,” he said cheerfully. Then he added, “The Chink said we’re headed for Makanza. That so, sir?”

I nodded. “Close to there.” I briefly told him about Camp-One. He made no comment at first, just stared over at the trees. At length he said, “Someone told me about that place, up in Angola. I thought it was a load of balls.”

“Well,” I said, “It isn’t. And it isn’t
up
in Angola, it’s down.”

He laughed. “Where I come from, sir,
everywhere’s
up...” He talked about his home then, about beaches and stuff like that. Then he came back with, “We gonna get another officer, sir?”

I said, “Probably. If I can get the man I want...”

The convoy slid to a standstill at Bomongo sixteen minutes after midnight, and it took all night just to disembark the truck.

 

 

FIVE

 

Conrad Mitchell had mixed feelings about the man who ran his Africa desk. Nothing specific, just mixed. The man had departed Mitchell’s office ten minutes ago but the musky smell of his aftershave lotion remained to taint the air. He had also left behind his inch-thick report on current happening on the Dark Continent. Mitchell wished he could pin Lee Barclay down;
was
it aftershave lotion? Or was it
perfume.
He sniffed the air and wrinkled his retrousse nose. Aftershave, then. Let’s be charitable. There was a huge vase of flowers, mostly roses, over by the window and Mitchell had enjoyed the occasional whiff of their scent all day. Now there was nothing in the air but that damned perfume!  Mitchell could not understand why a man of Barclay’s age wore the stuff. Did he like it? Did his wife like it? Did he
think
she liked it? Surely to God, Mitchell mused as he placed the file under the three others he had to wade through, surely to God Mary-Lou Barclay was too old to be
turned on
- the current “in” phrase - by
anything

Conrad Barclay sank back into his expansive leather swivel chair, clasped his hands over his also expansive stomach, his crew cut head resting on the soft, adjustable pad. He would remain thus for a full five minutes, clearing his mind in readiness for the task ahead. He had been head of the CIA for over eight years. He had seen - suffered, was the way he put it - the end of one presidential administration; the full term of another, and the start, the very rough, very shaky beginnings of a third.

Good golfers impressed Mitchell, so did bona fide war heroes. He respected the physically handicapped and the aged and he admired imaginative - not to be confused with surrealistic - artists. He loathed drunks and homosexuals and drug-pushers and snobs; inverse or the other kind. Strangely enough, he understood, and had certain sympathy for, prostitutes and some kinds of criminals. He would go well out of his way to pat a dog, whilst he did his level best, when behind the wheel of his “Olds," to buzz cats to distraction. So-called academics and call-them-what-you-like politicians left him stone cold. The latter came, and they went

The first thing Mitchell did when he opened his eyes was look at the huge “Old Glory” that adorned one complete wall of his barn-sized office. Its design, the sheer beauty of its construction and color scheme - bold, forthright, daring, significant - never failed to enthrall him. He could almost hear the drums and the bugles...

Iwo Jima!

That name sang again in his mind as the memories - he was there that day - flooded through him in palpable waves. And the men...Ah! The men!  He sighed. Would we ever see their like again? Viet Nam saw its fair share. But, criminally, their memory was tainted...he sniffed...like the air in that goddam office! He rose up and strode to the nearest window and latched it open another notch. Smelly aftershave lotion for a sixty years old man! Hell’s teeth! Mitchell resumed his place at the desk. Aftershave gunge had been invented for its pore-closing qualities; utilitarian, healthful - they said. Now it was a goddam perfume! He sank back and took a last lingering look at Old Glory. He smiled, stopped smiling, then pulled towards him the first of the day’s reports. He opened it, patted it lightly with both hands - a habit - then began to read.

He read about the El Salvador operation.

He read how Pokiss, the CIA chief
advisor
down there, was having problems with his lines of supply, and how Alex Cronkyte (no relation) was hot on the trail of Jojoda (
Hoh
oda), the El Salvadoran master spy (ha-ha!); and how Pat Raines had been butchered in a neatly planned ambush; and how the El Salvadoran cabinet was behaving itself, both collectively and separately. On one of these latter dossiers Mitchell made a pencil note:  “
Abrams is the best man for the job.”
Then he read on through the pages. He read how “certain” members of the U.S.Senate were stone-walling progress towards the required goal, and then he read the attached personal dossier of the “certain” people. A little meat, at last! Another note:
“Work on Jeager. The girl, possibly?”
Then he read the pages on the current President of the United States, with special relation to El Salvador. Wishy-washy, as usual - a lot of meat, but no real bone for it to cling to.

An hour later Mitchell closed that file and slid it to the opposite side of the desk; El Salvador was
business as usual.

He took the next file.

The heading on this one was: “MSB/2Z”. Mitchell glanced up at the flag. “Abe,” he said, “Forgive them, for they don’t have a clue what they get in to.” He opened the file cover. He read how MSB/2Z had reached the end if its research stage; that it could, hypothetically, wipe out all human life within twenty miles of its introduction by means of a spray. “Some crop dusting!” he murmured as he read, “
But that two hours later MSB/2Z would itself be dead.”
   Gone, harmless. A half-life, said the report of one general Clyde Lauter, of less than that of a drowning man. “Bully!” said Mitchell, reading on.
No effect at all on wildlife.
Fine.

Ah!

Lauter was in trouble again. A stand-up slanging match with the President. Lauter needed a test run... “Test run!” Mitchell chuckled. ...before he, Lauter, could or would okay MSB/2Z for introduction into the arsenal. Research, said Lauter via the file, had gone as far as it could go. The slanging match - probably fueled by the fact that the President himself had voted for the research in the first place - had almost come to blows.

“Way to go, Clydie-baby,” said Mitchell, lapsing vernacular as he sometimes would in the privacy of his own office. “Hang on in there.” He read on.

“Oh, shit!” he said later. Here was Jenson’s report. Lauter had transferred some of his scientific staff up to Alaska, and there had been a secret shipment of some kind. Mitchell glanced up at nothing in particular. He frowned. He said, “You wouldn’t do that, would you, Clyde?” Then he pulled a face and made a note:
“Have Flamm’s boys check out Lauter’s activities in Alaska. Special sights on possible set-up of new laboratory. Keep it quiet, Hal. My eyes only!!!
” He underlined the last three words.

“You can’t do that, Clyde,” said Mitchell aloud as he closed the file, “Much as I’d like to let you. That’s naughty.”

Mitchell pressed a button on the intercom as he placed the MSB/2Z file on top of the one for El Salvador.

“Yes, sir?”  A woman’s voice. Pinched. Nasal. And grating.

Mitchell winced. So far he had held out against the trend towards dishy-looking, soft-spoken young secretaries. But that could change if Molly-goddam-Spears didn’t get rid of that cold in a hurry!  “Some coffee, please, Molly.”

“Yes, sir. Right away...”

Mitchell looked like a man who had bitten into something hard. “Gusuntite,” he said after he had broken the connection. Fifteen minutes later, refreshed and watered, Mitchell pulled the third file towards him.

“OPERATION TAME BOAR”

Mitchell found three files in the one folder, containing copies of “incoming” from various far stations: Japan, Australia, and unified Germany. Mitchell groaned. He had hoped to find a “Closed” stamp. But mister-fucking-X was still making monkeys out of them!  Mister-X was a Hungarian triple agent, and he had proved himself more than just a pain in the arse. Mitchell opened the first file and he read how Randy Butler - Tokyo - had traced mister-X to an address in USA. Not, Mitchell noted, U.S.A., but USA.

“Made in USA,” he intoned dryly. “Smart-arsed bastards!  How would you like it if we named some hick town in Texas: JAPAN?!

Butler, it appeared, had lost the man after a chase half across the Japanese mainland. The address was now under surveillance. “Oh, shit!” Mitchell snapped. He made a note:

“John! Relieve whoever needs relieving on the Japanese station. Let’s get these out-of-town operations on the fuc...”
He crossed the last out.
“...ball”
  He waded the rest of the way through the file, and then opened the next element.

MELBOURNE
.

Mister-X had met a courier there. “Thank the Lord for that,” said Mitchell. At least the bastard hadn’t gone underground. There were notes about how Jameson - the Melbourne station officer - thought mister-X had tainted parts of the Australian administration. Mitchell pursed his lips and scribbled:
“Under your hat, John!”
He read on.

Next,
FRANKFURT.

Tucker had mister-X in his sights, living in an apartment on Kaiserstrasse. His - mister-X’s - cover was reasonably tight. He was posing as a teacher. Mitchell wrote: 
“Tell Tucker to lose him if he fuc...” 
Again the deletion.
“...dares! Keep low. Mister-X slips out again, let me know right off. And find out who he’s working
this
contract for. If it’s the east, then tell Phelps. If it’s the west, tell me!  I want all the names, John, before we nail the sunufabitch!  Also tell Tucker about Tokyo...”

Mitchell shook his head. “Sweet Mary!” he said to no-one but himself. Then he looked up at the flag. “Abe,” he said, “It’s like kid’s playtime out there. Keep an eye on the saps for me, will you, if you find yourself in that part of the world?”

Mitchell enclosed the three files in the folder and consigned it to the pile on his left. Then he reached for the last one, the one Lee Barclay had hand-delivered. He held it to his nose and sniffed. He grimaced at the flag. “See that, Abe? It’s even on the goddam paperwork!” He sighed heavily and opened the file.

The heading was:
“CONGO (misc.)”

Mitchell read how Barclay - he of the sweet-smelling chops - had decided to up-grade the Central Africa operations. Off his own bat!

“Now, why’d you do that, smelly?”

He read on. Then he said, “Ah!...” Then, “Maybe so. But you still wear girl’s perfume.”

He read how the British really had their teeth into something strong. And with Aaron Motanga (he of the stuff-your-money-Yanks!) He read about an individual called Robert McCann, and how the Chinese had recruited him to...

Mitchell leant forward over the file, occasionally saying things like, “Jesus!”

“You don’t goddam say!” “Well, why the hell not?”, “Who?”, and, “Ah, them, for crissakes!” Then he made a note on the slip of paper Barclay had affixed to the head of each page of the report (Barclay was the only member of the executive committee to do this): 
Lee, surely to God we can slip in there someplace! Work on it, we don’t want to be left out cold on this one, whatever the hell it is! I have a feeling that Armageddon approacheth...”

“Approacheth,” Mitchell said to the flag. “Not half bad, eh, Abe?”

He waded through the bits and pieces' reports from his men in both Brazzaville and Kinshasa, then two pages of garbage from the Pretoria cover station. Then, sitting back, Mitchell read Barclay’s six-page resume of what he
thought
was going on down in the Congo, with more about the Chinese connection, the British connection, the South African connection, and the Zaire short-stop.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Mitchell said to the flag, “Abe? If you’re listening, old buddy, have a word in the right ear and let me know what the blue blazes is happening in deepest Africa.”

Lastly, Mitchell read Barclay’s hand-written addendum:

“Sir, I respectfully submit that Central African operations must hold the highest priority. To allow matters to proceed as they are would be to open the flood gates to catastrophe.”
Cryptic stuff, thought Mitchell, reading on: 
“I will call in the morning and arrange an extended personal meeting.”

Mitchell carefully shuffled the pages together and replaced them in the folder, which he left there in front of him. To the flag, he said, “Well?”

 

*

 

The rain forests are like a land bewitched. The moisture-laden air is a drug of languidity, of disorientation. It’s an illusion, of course, but no less real for that. Most natives do not know the meaning of the word
illusion.
To them, especially the Simba; a tribe steeped in superstition and taboo, illusion means witchcraft: unknown and unspeakable. I have been a skeptical for as long as I can remember, but when the drivers switched off their engines and doused the lights, and the claustrophobic silence of that gloomy monastery of perpetual silence crashed in around us, I felt the urge to duck. To hide. It was a feeling that had been building inside me ever since we had hacked our way through the swamp growth and into the rain forests proper. I called back to Augarde.

“Close them up! Tight around the transports!”

Augarde waved an acknowledgement and I turned to the wiry Swede, who had ridden shotgun in the lead jeep. “Lay on a picket, Bjoran. The Kenyans. You know what to do.”

Bjoran nodded. He lifted his AK and vaulted out over the jeep’s side. “Ya, zur,” he said, the sing-song lilt of his accent oddly out of step with the cold blue steel of his eyes and the grim set of his scarred jaw. “I know yus fine. We keep the li’l babies fra scampering off, ya?”

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