Our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.
The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because of the enemy, if it was the enemy, simply because it didn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.
Now, it appears, his problems stem from another operation he participated in, and because of it, he has now been roped into what might be called a suicide mission.
An hour later we were stopped by the side of the road, at a point where another road, or, rather, a track headed to the left into the forest.
A short distance before that I noticed a sign, battered and faded, advertising an airport, a sign I thought had been put there as a joke.
Of course, when I remembered the conversation I had with Monroe back on the plane and the fact we had a specialist pilot in our group, it all began to make sense.
Our exit strategy.
I only wished I had internet coverage so I could check the presence of an airport in what looked to be the middle of nowhere.
Only Davies seemed unperturbed.
I had to ask. “Did you know there was an airport here?”
“Of one, used by fly-ins for the Garamba National Park. Not much of an airstrip though, and we don’t exactly have up to the minute details on its surface, but as recently as a week ago a small plane had landed there.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
“All you had to do was ask the right question.”
It seems I didn’t know what the right questions were, what might be called an occupational hazard on a job like this.
Everyone had got out of their cars to stretch their legs and prepare for the next phase of the operation, which was to meet with the kidnappers. I expected Jacobi would be on the sat phone talking to their leader, advising we had arrived.
I went back to Mobley, standing with the Ugandan soldier that had been assigned as his driver, smoking a cigarette. I was surprised he hadn’t joined the others who had gathered ahead of the lead vehicle.
“Nice shooting back there,” I said. It was for a man under pressure to make the shots, and give the rest of us a chance to take care of the others. That no one else got shot was a miracle.
“Just another day at the office.”
“Well, it hasn’t ended yet. I want you to go to the airstrip and get it under surveillance. There is supposed to be an aircraft there, whether for our use or just there so we can steal it I’m not quite sure. But if there’s a plane there, I want you to make sure it doesn’t leave, but as quietly as possible. We should be along later with the packages. I’m going up to tell the Colonel he’ll be joining you. He might not want to, but he’s done enough for us. I don’t want him to make enemies unnecessarily.”
“As you wish. I’ll be along shortly.”
“Good. Make sure your radio is working and on. I need to know if anything goes sideways.”
I wish I had his confidence.
A minute later I reached the front of the convoy and saw why there seemed little animation among the group. Monroe had Jacobi on his knees and a gun on the back of his neck.
“This is an interesting development Lieutenant. Is there a problem I should know about?”
“I reckon the weasel sold us out back there. Maybe even called them in to shake us down for one reason or another. Didn’t try too hard to negotiate with the commander.”
No, he hadn’t. And the thought had crossed my mind too. A bit of cash on the side, split with the commander. There didn’t seem to be any intent of the commander’s part to shoot us, so it was a pity we had to kill them all. If they were part of the kidnapper’s operations, things might get a little dangerous.
“Before you kill him,” I said, “Did he tell you how the call to the kidnappers went?”
“Perhaps you should.”
Mobley picked that moment to drive up alongside Jacobi and the Lieutenant.
“Problem?” he asked through the window.
“No. We’re practicing our run at the kidnappers.”
He shrugged. I looked over at the Colonel. “Time for you to be moving on. You don’t need to be in on the next part, for plausible deniability. I suspect if the leader of this group sees you, and makes any connection back to the Ugandans, it could cause trouble.”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“Better if you didn’t have to. My man needs help at the airstrip and a man of your authority might just smooth over problems if he needs it.”
“You’re having a plane sent in?”
“I’d like to think so, might even get you home in time for a late supper.” I glared at Jacobi. “How does he get to the airstrip?”
“Normally, through the town, but there’s a track about 200 yards up the road. Go left, follow the road, then turn right at the first fork.”
He stood staring at the ground for a minute, hopefully considering doing as I asked. I was not sure what I was going to do if he didn’t. It was preferable he didn’t come with us.
“OK. You have a point. No need stirring up my Congo friends any more than I already have.”
He went over to Mobley’s car and got in, replacing the Ugandan soldier as a driver.
“See you when we see you,” Mobley said, and the Colonel drove off after a wave.
Back to my other problem.
“You’ve had time to think about your answer, Jacobi, so tell us.”
“An eight-mile drive along the next track, then instead of taking the fork to the airstrip, go left, and drive to you reach the checkpoint.”
“The meeting is on.”
“They’re waiting for us.”
“In more ways than one, I’d say,” Monroe muttered. “He’s outlived his usefulness in my book.”
Ordinarily, I would agree with her, but we still needed him. There might have been an initial negotiation, but it was far from what the end deal would be, and he had to be there to complete it. And if he was leading us into a trap, well, we’d just have to wait and see.
“We still need him, so ease up on the aggression. If he has double-crossed us, you can shoot him. Until then, play nice. But, just as a precaution, you and Stark can bring up the rear, stop about a mile short, and do some recon between there and the checkpoint. If anyone is thinking of sneaking up behind us, I want to know about it.”
Monroe shook her head, then eased the gun away from him. A nod to me.
“He can go with you in the lead car. Davies can come with me and keep driving the car. They’ll be expecting four vehicles.”
“Fair enough.” I turned to Baines, the first time I’d addressed him since getting on the plane at the black site. “You wouldn’t happen to know if there’s a portable rocket launcher among that film equipment, would you?”
“And half a dozen shells. Don’t know how they managed it, but it’s there.”
“Easy to get at?”
“If need be.”
“Good.” I looked around at the rest of the team. “Everyone had time to calm their nerves.”
I’d watched Jacobi drag himself to his feet and try to brush the dust of his clothes. It didn’t help restore what was once quite clean and crisp linen. No one helped him, in fact, if I gave the order to shoot, all of them would. Monroe’s accusation struck a chord with the others.
“We’d better get going,” she said, heading for the last vehicle after being joined by Davies. Out of earshot, she said something to her, and I heard them laughing.
I was not sure what it was about, but as long as it eased the tension in her. She had discovered which car was carrying the diamonds, co-incidentally the car I’d been driving, so we needed a situation so that we could remove the diamonds from the equation when we arrived at the checkpoint. There was no way the kidnappers were going to let us retrieve the package once we got there, and I had no doubt we would be separated from the cars, and the equipment, so that, if possible, the kidnappers could gain the upper hand.
Or that was how I suspected it would go down. It was only a matter of time before I was proved right or wrong.
Everyone else got back into the cars, and with Jacobi sitting in the front with me, I started moving forward.
I wasn’t prepared, not mentally anyway. I never was when going into battle.
© Charles Heath 2019-2021