“Africa? I can’t spare a senior officer for a long-term mission in Africa! We’re under pressure here as it is.”
“May I remind you that this mission is a joint operation? Under the terms of our inter-agency agreement, you’re obliged to provide us with resources.”
The Chief sat stewing silently. Why should the CIA, with their bloated budget and seemingly unlimited resources, expect him to lend them his personnel? Outrageous! He wished he could refuse, tell the CIA where to go.
To Hell with joint operations.
“All right, then,” he said aloud. “You’ll get your man. Experienced, good judgement, hard negotiator – that’s what you said you wanted, isn’t it? He’ll be in Bora Nafasi in five days.”
He ended the call, and buzzed his secretary. “Get von dem Eberbach up here, will you?”
The alarm clock on the bedside cabinet shrilled. The bed’s occupant was already awake, lying on his back watching the ceiling fan turn slowly. Although the sun still lay low above the eastern horizon, the temperature was already oppressive. Small wonder life crawled along at a lazy pace here.
Klaus rose from bed and went automatically through his morning routine. The shower’s cool water refreshed him a little, in the way sleep hadn’t. Padding out into the kitchen on bare feet, he poured a long glass of water and set the coffee to brew on the stove top.
In the corner, the kerosene-powered refrigerator gurgled and groaned. He’d have to service it again soon. No point waiting for the company’s odd-jobs man to come around to do it – you’d wait forever for jobs to get done if you didn’t do them yourself. Bloody fridge didn’t work effectively in this climate anyway. Just like most people here. H’mph.
The calendar on the wall caught his eye. It was the first of the month. He’d been here six months.
Six months without decent German food. Without decent German efficiency, too. Bloody place. At least you could get German beer at the social club bar, and their fridges worked better than his own. Like everyone else living here in the West Equatorial Mining and Exploration Company compound, Klaus had learned to value whatever small slivers of the familiar he could find.
The previous day’s mail delivery lay on the table. He picked up the envelope on top: Herr Volker Berendt, West Equatorial Mining and Exploration, Central Road, Bora Nafasi, Democratic Republic of Husuni.
He’d gotten used to this chameleon existence long ago: the ability to become another person living another life, for as long as a mission lasted; to create a new truth, and to deny other truths. Pretence and denial: a way of life. ‘Volker Berendt’ had become real to him; ‘Klaus von dem Eberbach’ had receded into the background, like an old overcoat hanging up in the backmost part of the closet, waiting for the day that identity was needed again.
To tell the truth, he’d been glad to leave Klaus von dem Eberbach behind in Bonn for a while. The other layers of pretence and denial he’d built up around his private life had started to wear thin.
Things had begun to go wrong when that damned thief started to show up on his missions. Eroica, Prince of Thieves – that’s how the man liked to see himself. The first couple of times, Klaus had put it down to coincidence, but after that, it was plain enough that he was being stalked.
One of the things that nettled Klaus about Eroica was that the thief seemed to be able to see through the protective shields he’d built around his own life. But he’d kept up the performance expected of him: Iron Klaus – straightforward, and straight.
Klaus was glad to be out of Eroica’s reach. He’d always told his men to avoid distractions, to be alert to things that could compromise them. “If it can distract you, it can kill you; or if it doesn’t kill you, someone can use it against you,” he’d always said. That had been his own creed for years. Eroica was a distraction. A distraction of a kind Klaus could never let on to anyone – couldn’t allow anyone to see.
A long mission under deep cover meant being able to get away from all that. The fop wouldn’t know where he was, and wouldn’t be able to find out. A joint CIA-NATO operation with a highly sensitive objective, the mission was being kept under wraps. Very few people in NATO knew about it. Klaus’s own men didn’t know where he was. If the worst happened, and he didn’t make it home, Klaus’s death wouldn’t be recorded and his last mission would never be acknowledged. Here in Husuni, he was safe from Eroica – safe from the temptation Eroica represented – and, unless he made it home, as good as dead to everyone who knew him back in Bonn.
Klaus poured a mugful of steaming black coffee, and sat down at the end of the table where a cooling draft drifted in through the flyscreen door.
A jeep drew up outside his bungalow in the company compound just as Klaus was pulling his boots on. Richardson, the American geologist, jumped out energetically. Like Klaus, he believed putting up with the heat and humidity was all about attitude, and the climate in Husuni never seemed to get him down.
“Hey, Berendt! Are you ready yet?” Richardson called, bounding up the low steps onto the verandah. He let himself into Klaus’s bungalow, allowing the screen door bang shut behind him.
Klaus picked up his canvas bag and shoved in a flask of cold water and the cheese sandwiches he’d made the night before. He nodded toward the jeep. “I see our new General Manager isn’t enjoying the heat.”
Richardson glanced back through the screen door, where the new man, Atkins, could be seen leaning against the side of the vehicle, fanning himself. Atkins had only been in Husuni for eight days; he wasn’t used to it yet.
“He’ll live,” Richardson remarked cheerily. “Just don’t give him a hard time, hey?”
Klaus checked his gun and pulled on his shoulder holster. Wearing guns openly wasn’t unusual in Husuni, not when you were travelling up-country. There were predators in the rivers and the forests. Rebel fighters, too. Officially, West Equatorial was on good terms with all the locals, and bribes were paid to buy the tolerance of the militia groups in remote areas, but you never knew when something might go wrong.
They went out together to the car. Richardson climbed into the driver’s seat; Atkins got in beside him, and Klaus crawled into the back. It was just before seven thirty when they drove out through the compound gates.
Looking at the tall whitewashed walls topped with barbed wire, Klaus reflected on the irony of living, effectively, inside a prison – one designed to keep people out rather than in. Everyone in Husuni who had anything worth stealing lived behind high walls like this, locals and foreigners alike. It was a visible reminder that this was a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
Inside the compound, West Equatorial’s management and administration staff lived in relative comfort and safety. Life at the outlying camps was more rough-and-ready, but the company paid its expatriate workforce good wages. The Husuni nationals who formed the majority of the manual workers – the men who mined the diamonds that kept West Equatorial in business – were paid far less; but their pay and conditions were better than at many foreign-owned businesses.
Klaus got to hear first-hand what many of the locals thought of West Equatorial and its fellow foreign enterprises. As Community Relations Manager, he was the one who signed off on initiatives that benefited the local population and bought their approval through providing amenities they couldn’t afford to fund themselves.
Approval? Tolerance was perhaps a better word, Klaus thought.
As Richardson drove, he provided a running commentary directed at Atkins, the newcomer. “We should take about five hours to get to the North Rivers mine, provided nothing goes wrong. When we get there, the Site Manager will give you a tour of the operation. Then you can spend the rest of the afternoon with the book-keeper and the dispatch officer. Berendt and I have a few things to do that’ll keep us busy.”
Atkins nodded, mopping his face and neck. “How can it be so bloody hot when it’s still this early in the morning?”
Richardson grinned. “Wait till you get up to North Rivers. Then you’ll see what ‘hot’ is. Isn’t that right, Berendt?” Richardson raised his voice slightly, drawing Klaus into the conversation.
“Don’t let the heat get to you, Atkins,” Klaus said, only half-interested. “You can deal with it if you have the discipline.”
“I suppose I’ll get used to it. Bit of a contrast to the weather in London, that’s all.”
They drove in silence for a while, winding upward through the low hills into the mountains behind the city. At the crest of a high ridge, Richardson pulled over and stopped the engine.
“Come on: geography lesson.”
All three got out and stood looking over the broad expanse unbroken forest stretching out to the horizon. Klaus took the opportunity to light a cigarette, while Richardson, in schoolmaster mode, pointed out features of the landscape to Atkins.
“The capital’s back that way: that’s roughly south-west of here. This way, east, it’s unbroken forest to the border.”
“Border with—?” Atkins inquired.
“Zaire.” Richardson swept his arm around the points of the compass. “Zaire that way; Congo in that direction. Go far enough that way, you’ll end up in Angola – although they’re busy tearing each other apart down there, so I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Atkins asked some questions about settlement patterns and where the rivers were, trying to marry up what he was seeing with the maps he’d pored over every night since he’d arrived.
Klaus left them to it, smoking, gazing off into the hazy distance. As General Manager, he mused, Atkins would have all the company’s usual problems to grapple with. The roads here were poor, and there was no railway in this part of the country. Fuel supplies were unreliable. Corruption was rife, and like all foreign businesses in Husuni, West Equatorial was weighed down by red tape. Klaus thought Atkins would have plenty to keep him occupied.
The Republic of Husuni was largely undeveloped. It was rich in natural resources: diamonds, gold and timber, and possibly oil as well, although exploration for that mineral was in its infancy. Development of the country’s resources had largely been done by foreign companies, but doing business in Husuni wasn’t easy, because the Kisulu regime treated foreign companies as sources of tax revenue but gave them little support. It was also true that while President Laurent Kisulu and his inner circle appeared to become richer year by year, the country seemed to benefit little from any of the development taking place. West Equatorial’s parent company printed proud statements in its Annual Reports about the contribution their investment made to the Husuni economy and the welfare of the people. In reality, no matter how much tax West Equatorial and the other foreign companies paid, the country had little to show for it.
In spite of all the obstacles, though, West Equatorial managed to make money – enough to send a profit back to the parent company in England, as well as funding the covert project Klaus was here to work on. Atkins’ predecessor had set up a system to siphon off a portion of West Equatorial’s revenue for the purpose. He’d made sure the right man was assigned look after the accounts, and he’d sworn the system would withstand scrutiny. Klaus sincerely hoped that was true; hoped, too, that Atkins would keep his mind on company productivity, and not notice that some West Equatorial employees had other concerns.
They arrived at the North Rivers site around midday. Atkins was introduced to the senior staff over lunch, and as soon as the meal was over the Site Operations Manager took him away to begin a round of inspections. Klaus and Richardson had business of their own to conduct, so they headed off to the staff club room, where the Manager had said they would not be disturbed.
They closed the door behind them. While Klaus made a quick sweep of the room to be sure they were safe from unwanted listeners, Richardson went behind the bar and collected two glasses and a large bottle of cold beer.
“The geologists wanted me to go and look at a new sector they plan to open up. I put them off; said I’d go in the morning.”
Klaus nodded his thanks as Richardson passed a full glass to him. “I’ve got to put up with that fool of a Community Liaison Officer tomorrow.”
Richardson grinned. “You’ll manage. Just let him do the talking.”
“Come on, Berendt, you can deal with all those crazies from the Freedom Revolutionary Alliance – surely you can deal with a harmless old aid worker? You’ve got plenty in common – you’re both helping the locals.”
“He might not see dealing with the opposition party’s guerrilla forces as ‘helping the locals’,” Klaus remarked dryly. “Not that I plan to mention it.”
“Come on, he’s a harmless old coot, and he’s done a lot to help our operation without knowing it. I hear the FRA boys are quite pleased about the health centre he’s set up. Give him a break. Make him feel important.”
Klaus grunted. “Have you seen a background report on Atkins yet?”
Richardson sipped his beer and put the glass down. “He’s clean. Langley ran all the usual checks. No political affiliations. No questionable relationships. Never been near a Communist-controlled country.”
“So, a genuine business appointment.”
“Looks like it.” Richardson topped up Klaus’s glass.
“Then he’ll be going through the books with a fine-tooth comb. You’d better have a word with van Owen, make sure he’s keeping the special investment streams watertight.”
“You could have a word with him yourself,” Richardson suggested.
Klaus made a contemptuous noise. “You do it. He doesn’t like to hear advice from me.” Klaus and van Owen kept an uneasy truce, since they had to work together, but their dislike for each other was obvious to everyone at West Equatorial.
“All right, anything to keep the peace – but look, Berendt, the three of us are in this together. We need to be able to rely on each other. I wish you’d make more of an effort – you’ve said yourself it’s not anything he’s done. I don’t want to see this mission scuttled because you and van Owen don’t like the cut of each other’s jib.”
“I don’t trust him,” Klaus growled. “Can’t put my finger on what it is, but there’s something that’s not right.”
“You don’t seem the sort to be swayed by intuition, Berendt.”
“I’m not, but there’s something wrong there; I just can’t see what it is yet.”
Klaus picked up his beer and drank. Beer was the only thing that really quenched thirst in this hot, sticky climate. As soon as he put his glass down, Richardson topped it up again.
“When are you meeting your boy Zawawi?”
A sharp look from Klaus. “He’s not my boy. Zawawi’s nobody’s boy.”
“All right. But when are you seeing him next?”
“Routine meeting next Thursday morning.”
“And how are things going with him?”
“I’m not happy with Zawawi,” Klaus said. “He’s getting too fond of the money and not moving fast enough on preparations for the coup. The longer he takes, the more practice he’s going to get at being creative with the bank deposits.”
“Are you suggesting—?”
“—I’m suggesting Zawawi’s already taking his cut from the money we send them, and I’d be prepared to bet that the cut’s getting bigger every time. He’s got the potential to become another self-important dictator like Kisulu, lining his own pockets without regard for the country.”
Richardson, who had never met General Zawawi, waved his hand dismissively. “The main thing is to get him to oust Kisulu. That’s what we’re backing him for. Kisulu’s got to go, and it must be seen to be done by the Husunis themselves. Whatever happens after that, we can deal with it.”
“Don’t get short sighted about this,” Klaus cautioned. “We need to think beyond the coup; we need to have a plan in place for managing Zawawi after he takes power. If we can’t keep Zawawi under control, all this will be for nothing.”
Richardson frowned, and said, “Yes, I can see your point. Exchanging one corrupt road-blocker for another isn’t going to achieve anything. I’ll talk to Langley about the need for ongoing management. Meanwhile, you and I are supposed to be getting the change of government under way. So, if Zawawi’s dragging his heels, find a way to get him moving.”
The rest of that day was occupied with meetings, inspections and business discussions. Then, after a night sleeping in cheerless workers’ quarters, Richardson spent the morning with the geologists, and Klaus endured hours with the Community Liaison Officer.
Klaus found the Community Liaison Officer hard work. The man took the company’s obligation to help the local community very seriously, and his earnest manner irritated Klaus, who became more and more short tempered with each passing anecdote as he was driven around the settlement to see the school, the health centre and the new village well that had all been funded by West Equatorial.
They hardly saw Atkins, who was busy acquainting himself with the full range of operations at North Rivers.
The three took their leave in the early afternoon, planning to arrive back in Bora Nafasi around sunset. In the front seat, Atkins and Richardson talked about life in Husuni. Klaus sat in the back, saying little, observing.
Now that he’d seen something of both the capital city and more remote areas, Atkins was full of questions. He asked Richardson about the traditional culture, about farming methods, about health and education. Inevitably, his questions came around to politics.
“Before I left England, I read something in the papers about foreign ambassadors being expelled from Husuni. What’s that about?”
“The government here’s very sensitive to criticism. Two or three European ambassadors upset the President with comments they made to foreign journalists. He reacted rather strongly.”
“Was their criticism warranted?”
“Kisulu gets touchy about foreigners criticizing the way laws are made and enforced in Husuni. His view is that foreigners’ frames of reference are different, and they don’t understand how people think here.”
Atkins, frowning, looked across at Richardson. “But were they right? I mean, was their criticism justified?”
“Husuni’s a developing country. Its political thinking is evolving. Sometimes, evolution is slower than we’d like.”
“The Site Manager told me that the area around North Rivers is controlled by a local militia group – the people in the villages take more notice of them than they do of the government.”
“Not uncommon,” Richardson said. “Happens all across the country.”
“Should we worry about the militia groups at all?”
“No, I don’t think you should worry unduly,” Richardson said. “We’re on good terms with the locals in all the places we operate.” He raised his voice above the sound of the engine. “Wouldn’t you say so, Berendt?”
“That’s right,” Klaus said. “West Equatorial makes a point of building good relations with the local communities.” He watched Atkins’ expression in the rear-view mirror; he thought Atkins looked uncertain.
Richardson said, “We treat the locals with respect. If we were to start acting as if we own the place, the locals would get resentful, and you couldn’t blame them for that.” He offered Atkins an easy smile. “It won’t take long to learn how to read the culture and politics here. And Volker and I can show you around.” Richardson raised his voice again, grinning, catching Klaus’s eye in the rear-view mirror. “Volker knows where all the best bars are.”
They lapsed into silence. The forest spun by on either side of the road, and the sound of the engine lulled them.
Klaus gazed out of the window. Naturally, Atkins would be interested in the influence of the militia groups. It was a feature of life in Husuni that newcomers had to get used to and try to understand.
On one level, it was a natural outgrowth of the old traditions – men and boys had to learn to handle weapons. Once, that had meant spears. Now, the weapons were different. In some areas, ‘militia group’ was an exaggeration: the men with guns were just villagers concerned about protecting their own. In other areas, though, armed groups were aligned with political parties – some supporting the government, some opposing it.
The incumbent President had been elected in a rigged poll nine years before. Since then he’d found it inconvenient to hold elections, so there’d been none. President Laurent Kisulu enjoyed the support of the military – particularly, the support of the military strongman Fabrice Dikembe. Kisulu trusted Dikembe as his chief advisor and second-in-command. Dikembe was also Kisulu’s chief enforcer, and in that capacity, he headed up a secret police unit that was widely feared, and whose existence was categorically denied by the government.
From time to time, opposition parties formed, making noises about change, but most faded away almost as soon as they’d emerged – largely due to intervention by Dikembe’s secret police. The Freedom Revolutionary Alliance, under the leadership of Massemba Zawawi, was the only one that posed any genuine threat to Kisulu’s government.
Klaus glanced at Atkins again; the man was gazing out of the window at the forest spooling by, lost in his own thoughts.
They made good time, and they reached the long ridge above the descent to Bora Nafasi late in the afternoon.
The jeep slowed down. “I’m just going to pull over here,” Richardson said. “I need a piss.”
As soon as the jeep rolled to a halt, Richardson climbed out and headed for the forested side of the road. Klaus and Atkins got out to stretch their legs.
“Christ, there’s no room in that bloody jeep. I feel like I’m half crippled!” Atkins complained, stamping his feet to force the circulation back into them.
Klaus walked across to the edge of the road where the mountainside fell away in a steep drop. He lit a cigarette, and stood looking out over the vast green wilderness.
There was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could see. Klaus knew there were people down there. The village dwellers who still lived in the traditional way hunted in the forest. Foreign companies had their exploration teams out there looking for the next big opportunity. Groups of guerrilla fighters were moving around all the time; mostly watching, sometimes showing themselves – either to threaten or to reassure, depending on who they met. Looking down from this height, you could see nothing of the human activity happening below. The dense green canopy hid everything.
Atkins came and stood beside him. He was quiet for a while and then, in a voice that suggested he was quoting from something he’d read, he said, “The stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”
“Joseph Conrad. The Heart of Darkness. Did you ever read it?”
“When I was a student. Years ago.”
“Remember how Conrad wrote about the African wilderness as if it’s some kind of all-knowing force that conspires to shut the white men out? When you look out over that forest, you can see what he meant.”
Klaus looked at him quizzically. “Can you?”
“Come on, Berendt. When you look at that endless green blankness, even a prosaic bastard like you must feel something. What does it make you think of?”
Klaus gazed for a few moments, assessing. “Broccoli.” He ground his cigarette out under his boot.
“Come on, you two!” Richardson called. “The light will be gone before we get back to town.”
They climbed back into the vehicle, and headed down the road toward the capital.
Atkins didn’t say any more about his musings on Joseph Conrad. Instead, he and Richardson entered into a long conversation about economics and politics in their respective home countries.
Klaus let their voices fade into the background. He thought about The Heart of Darkness. It had been on the reading list when he’d studied English at University. He’d thought it an obscure and dreary tale, but the idea behind it had been correct: when people come into a country to plunder its riches without trying to understand the place, it’s bound to lead to trouble. You could see that happening every day in Husuni. And most people had no idea how bad that trouble was going to be when it reached breaking point.
Because Lennar van Owen generally avoided having any dealings with him, Klaus was surprised the next morning to see the accountant at his office door.
“What do you want, van Owen?”
Lounging against the door frame, all loose-limbed insolence, Lennar van Owen smirked at Klaus’s gruff tone.
“I thought,” he said, coming in and sitting down, “that you might fill me in on Atkins. You and Richardson had plenty of time to sound him out on your jaunt up to North Rivers while I was stuck here at home base. So, tell me. Does he know about the operation, or is he just a bureaucrat from Head Office?”
“I thought Richardson was going to brief you about that.”
“He did – but I want to hear your version of it. You see things Richardson doesn’t, sometimes.” The observation might have been a compliment coming from someone else. “Look, Berendt, I’m not trying to play you off against each other, if that’s what you’re worried about. The three of us are running this operation together and you owe it to me to see that I’m up to date with all the information. So spill. What did you make of Atkins?”
Klaus got up and closed the door, then took the phone off the hook so they wouldn’t be interrupted. “You and Richardson are both CIA. He must have told you that Langley’s done a background check, and that Atkins came up clean.”
“West Equatorial hasn’t told him anything about our special arrangements. He doesn’t think there’s anything going on here except digging up diamonds.”
Van Owen smirked again. “He must think West Equatorial’s made some odd appointments, though. You as Community Relations Manager, for a start.”
Glaring, Klaus said tightly, “The subject didn’t come up.”
“Well, Richardson told me that the old geezer who looks after community liaison up at North Rivers complained to him and Atkins about how you were unsuitable for the job – didn’t care about welfare initiatives.”
“But if Atkins decides to get nosy on the strength of that—”
“—then the three of us need to show some solidarity, van Owen, and not try to score points off each other. I don’t give a fuck what you think of me yourself, but the three of us are responsible for bringing this operation off, so we all need to keep Atkins happy.”
Van Owen shrugged. “Don’t worry, I don’t want him prying into things either. If I’ve got anything to do with it, he won’t see anything irregular in the accounting.” Unfolding himself from the chair, van Owen slouched across to the door. “Whatever you think of me, Berendt, I’m doing my bit. Maybe you could get Zawawi moving a bit faster so we can see some return for our investment.”
With that parting shot, van Owen ambled away down the corridor.
Klaus put the phone back on the hook. The little shit isn’t worth getting worked up over. What else can you expect from an assassin with a background in accountancy?
First Richardson, now van Owen – both complaining about the opposition party not moving fast enough.
Western intelligence agencies had invested heavily in backing the impending coup. They wanted a regime in place that would give the West easier access to Husuni’s natural resources; and they wanted a base from which to exert influence on the neighbouring countries. NATO had taken an interest because it didn’t want to see the USSR getting another toe-hold in Africa, and a strong Western presence in Husuni would guard against that. Right now, whether those things could be achieved or not depended on General Zawawi’s readiness to move against the President. Klaus had spent enough time with Zawawi and the FRA to know that they had enough men and weapons. President Kisulu was too busy lining his own pockets to notice what the opposition parties were up to, so whenever the FRA chose to move, he’d be caught by surprise.
So what was holding Zawawi back?
Taking his cue from Richardson’s assertion that ‘Volker knows where all the best bars are’, Atkins dropped in to Klaus’s office toward the end of the day and suggested going out for a drink that night.
“To get to know each other, since we work together,” he said.
Klaus took him to the Hollywood Bar, a drinking-house on a dusty side street in Bora Nafasi, frequented by expatriate workers.
Klaus and Atkins settled at a small table in a relatively quiet corner. The crowded bar was buzzing with discontentment as the drinkers compared their disappointments and dissatisfactions, taking some small comfort from the knowledge that there were others who felt as alien in Husuni as they did themselves.
“Christ, listen to them!” Atkins lifted his beer. “They’re all either moaning and complaining, or else talking about going back home.”
Klaus shrugged. “Everyone complains about their job or gripes about the boss. Same the world over.”
“Well, I suppose – but there’s a desperation to it, don’t you think?”
Atkins studied his colleague across the top of his beer glass. “You don’t say much, do you, Volker? A man of few words.”
“You could say that,” Klaus allowed himself the hint of a smile at the wave of exasperation that passed across Atkins’ face.
They drank for a few moments in silence, then Atkins tried again. “I was in South Africa for a few years, with De Koeyer and Company. Operations in Husuni seem more … well, more basic.”
“It’s a developing country.”
“What were you doing before you came to Husuni, Volker?”
“Gold trading; South America.” That was what it said in Volker Berendt’s staff file; Atkins had probably seen it.
“Were you managing community relations there, too?”
“Logistics. Getting gold shipments through territory held by rebel forces.”
Light dawned in Atkins’ eyes. “Ah, now I see. Your opposite number at North Rivers seemed to think you didn’t show much interest in welfare work. This explains it. You’ve been hired to smooth the way for getting the diamond shipments through the areas controlled by militia groups, haven’t you? I’d suspected there was a reason. Do you have a military background?”
“I’m an engineer.”
Atkins recognised that his colleague’s flat tone signalled the end of that bracket of conversation. He drained his glass. “I’ll get us another round.”
While Atkins was at the bar, Klaus gazed around with a detached expression, listening to the ebb and flow of nearby conversations. The complainants changed from night to night, but the complaints remained the same.
Disillusioned men were two a penny in Bora Nafasi. Modern-day conquistadors, they’d come to Husuni to make their fortunes, but the easy money they’d imagined had eluded them. Somehow, Husuni had held on to her riches and left them stranded in disappointment. They blamed bureaucracy, inefficiency, corruption; they railed against taxes and legislation. They didn’t spend much time reflecting on their own motives, or the fact that they’d been prepared to use brute force or cunning to take the riches they coveted from people they believed weaker than themselves.
The men at the next table had obviously been drinking for a long time; their voices were loud, their laughter unconstrained.
“Another round, barman!” bawled a florid Australian, fumbling in his pockets for money. “Drinks for everyone, on me.”
“Jeez, Barclay, you’ll have a sore head tomorrow morning!”
“Never mind about my head. If I’ve got a hangover it’ll help me sleep on the bloody plane.” Barclay thrust a handful of notes at the man next to him. “Here, you sort it out. I’m beyond counting. Beer all round, take it out of that.”
Face flushed and jovial, Barclay slewed around in his seat to address Klaus. “You blokes are from the diamond mines, aren’t you? Why don’t you join us?”
Without waiting for a response, he and a couple of the others shuffled their chairs around to give some semblance of inclusion. Atkins, returning from the bar, set down the glasses he was carrying and shifted his own chair.
“I haven’t seen you around before.” Barclay gestured at Atkins with his beer glass. The beer sloshed over the side. Barclay changed hands and wiped his wet palm on his trouser leg. “Are you a new arrival?”
“Been here just over a week,” Atkins replied. “I’ve been working in England for a while; three years ago, I was in South Africa.”
“I s’pose Husuni’s a bit of a come-down from South Africa. Things’re a bit more advanced down there. Better organised.”
Atkins made a non-committal noise and drank some beer.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” Barclay said. “It usually takes about three months to sort out how things work, and about six months to get thoroughly pissed off at the way nothing ever gets done.”
One of the others at Barclay’s table chipped in, “Took me a year and a half to work out who I was supposed to be bribing!”
“Always knew you were a slow learner, McLean!” someone else quipped.
There was a roar of laughter.
“I suppose you know who to bribe.” The one called McLean flashed a belligerent grin at Klaus. “I reckon you’d have that all organised up at the diamond mines.”
Klaus answered mildly, “What gives you that idea? West Equatorial doesn’t pay bribes.”
The response was a louder roar of laughter.
“Bullshit!” scoffed Barclay. “Everybody pays bribes. You’d never get anything done in Husuni without greasing the right palms.”
Atkins leaned forward, interested to hear what the man had to say. “How long have you been here?”
“Eleven years. Came here thinking it was a land of opportunity – but every year the taxes get higher, the red tape gets worse, and it gets harder and harder for modern businesses to make a living.” Barclay drank, the deep swallows of a man who’s no longer tasting what’s in his glass. “Well, I’ve had a gut full. I’m getting out of here.”
“Selling up?” Atkins asked.
“Selling? You’re joking. You can’t get anybody to buy a business here! No, I’m just locking the door and walking out. Leaving the mill, leaving the trucks, leaving the house. You’d think the people in places like this would be grateful for foreign capital and trade opportunities, wouldn’t you? But they aren’t.”
“He’s right, y’know,” McLean said. “Most of them are content to scratch out an existence in the mud and dust. Money? Wouldn’t know how to manage it. Well, why would they? They don’t handle the stuff. But do they want to learn?” He shook his head, an expression of deep disgust on his face.
“Exactly right, mate,” Barclay seized the conversation back again. “I mean, look at the place. Covered in valuable timber, those mountains are. When I first got here, I thought: couldn’t take much to ferry the logs down the river to the coast, mill the timber there and export it. But you can’t get a work force, and you have that many hoops to jump through with government permits, it’s just not worth it. I’ve been up here trying to run a timber-cutting business with logging trucks, but the roads are too bad. You can’t win.”
Barclay drained his glass and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
“I s’pose life’s better for you blokes up at the diamond mines, but for me, there’s nothing left in Husuni. Well, good riddance to it. But your time will come, mark my words. You’ll get to the stage you’ll just be glad to get out, and you won’t care what you leave behind. This place eats ambitions, mate; it eats up your spirit.”
Klaus watched Barclay lurch to his feet and stumble clumsily out of the door.
With Barclay’s departure, the knot of men began to break up and drift off, leaving Klaus and Atkins sitting at the edge of the disarrayed furniture. One of the barmen came over and straightened up the tables and chairs.
“You’ve been here, what, six months? How stable do you think the country is, Volker?” Atkins asked, sounding serious.
Choosing his words carefully, Klaus said, “Things are fairly quiet at present; of course, that could change at any time.”
“Is that what the locals think? You talk to the community leaders here; do they think the place is stable?”
“The Husuni concept of stability’s different from ours. We measure stability in terms of uninterrupted trade and government continuity. Most of the Husuni don’t take any notice of that.”
“Some of the staff at the mine seem to think there are opposition forces gearing up to depose President Kisulu.”
“Husuni’s full of guerrilla fighters, loyal to this one and that one.” Klaus spoke in dismissive tones, designed to cut off this line of conversation. “It’s an extension of the old tribal system. The further away from Bora Nafasi you get, the stronger the traditional ways of life are. Another beer?”
He stood, picking up his own empty glass and holding out his hand for Atkins’.
“Some of the men think a change of government would be good for business.” Atkins handed over his glass. “The present government doesn’t exactly make it easy for foreign investment.”
“Chaos is never good for business either.” Klaus took the glasses to the bar, and ordered another round.
Klaus set out early the next morning, leaving the dusty tangle of Bora Nafasi behind him and heading into the steep, thickly wooded mountains. He was on his way to meet the self-styled General Massemba Zawawi, leader of the Freedom Revolutionary Alliance, would-be President of Husuni.
The unsealed road wound upwards, carrying him farther and farther away from signs of human habitation. The further he travelled, the narrower and more rutted the road became. Maintaining roads needed money and manpower, and both of those were in short supply in Husuni.
A long and uncomfortable ride later, Klaus climbed out of his battered jeep. He was deep in the mountain forest, miles from Bora Nafasi. He checked his watch: ten forty-seven. He was a few minutes early – although that hardly counted for anything, as the men he’d come to meet usually kept him waiting.
He lit a cigarette. Around him, the forest hummed with insects, the drowsy buzzing punctuated intermittently by bird calls. Sweat crawled down inside his collar. His shirt stuck to his back.
Perhaps half an hour passed before three men emerged from the forest about a hundred yards ahead, and made their way toward him. Their clothing was old and worn, but all three carried expensive new assault rifles and had cartridge belts draped across their chests. One had a machete dangling casually at his side. Klaus shook hands with them; they climbed into the jeep, he fired up the engine, and they continued down a side track deeper into the forest.
Forty minutes later the track petered out, and they drove into an encampment. Overhead, the forest canopy was thick enough to hide the huts and tents from aerial observation. The rough track was enough of a deterrent to keep curious road travellers away.
Klaus strode confidently through the camp flanked by his armed escort, but he held no illusions about his status here. He was no honoured guest. He was here as a messenger, and he knew that he and West Equatorial were viewed with suspicion and tolerated because they were a means to an end.
Zawawi was sitting at a table outside his hut, a mug of tea steaming at his elbow, and a pile of papers in front of him. He looked up as Klaus approached and smiled widely, although his eyes remained cold.
Zawawi didn’t offer him a chair. A calculated slight.
“General.” Klaus nodded, and stood waiting.
Something wasn’t right; Zawawi seemed displeased. A loose group of armed men standing nearby moved to encircle their General and his visitor, rifles in their hands.
The General sat back and regarded Klaus, still smiling but less widely now. “Berendt, we have a problem. Perhaps it’s something you can explain to me.”
“Yes, a problem. Our party’s legal advisor has been to see me. We’ve been expecting a large sum of money to appear in our bank account. It should have been deposited four days ago – but no money has arrived.” Zawawi feigned puzzlement. “I don’t understand this. Do you, Berendt?”
Klaus narrowed his eyes, frowning. “Your payment hasn’t arrived, and it’s now four days late?”
“That’s right, Berendt. The agreement was that West Equatorial Mining would send us this payment, totalling three hundred and fifty thousand American dollars. We haven’t received any of it. Now, what do you suppose can have gone wrong?”
Klaus’s frown deepened. There were no plans to change the arrangements. Van Owen was in charge of shifting the money and resources around. He was an unpleasant bastard, but efficient. Administrative cock-up? Possible, but unlikely. The focus of the morning’s meeting was supposed to be on moving the timetable for the coup forward, but with Zawawi’s attention fixed on the missing funds, that was off the agenda.
Around him, Klaus saw a ripple of movement as the encircling bodyguards gripped their weapons tighter.
“General, I’m glad you’ve brought this to my attention,” Klaus said. “There should be no reason for your funds to be delayed. I’ll look into it. Straight away.”
“See that you do, Berendt. We’re relying on our friends to honour their promises.” Zawawi’s eyes glittered with threat. “Our energies are concentrated on preparing to remove the corrupt regime that’s been misgoverning the country. It would be regrettable if we had to divert our attention to punish those who have dishonoured an agreement.”
“We haven’t dishonoured our agreement, General,” Klaus said evenly. “The money should have been paid. If there’s been an administrative error at the bank—”
“Someone else’s error!” Zawawi’s humourless smirk dripped contempt. “Someone else’s error – I hear this all the time from Americans and Europeans. Someone else’s fault. Let me tell you, Berendt: men of honour do not seek to shift the blame. That’s a coward’s way.”
Damping down the anger that threatened to boil up, Klaus said, “General, West Equatorial has promised its support, and there’s no intention to step away from our agreement. The money should have been paid. I’ll see to it personally that any mistakes that have been made are put right. You’ll get your money.”
“Good. Because you know, Berendt, we rely on that money to purchase the necessary weapons and ammunition for the battle to come. Without money, we won’t be able to liberate Husuni from its burden. When we’re victorious, we’ll remember our friends.” Zawawi smiled a dark warning. “We will not forget our enemies, or those who have blocked our way.”
Klaus didn’t let any reaction show on his face. “General Zawawi, leave it with me. West Equatorial honours its promises. I’ll see that this is put right.”
Zawawi stood. “See that you do. Among our people, a man’s word is sacred, and violating a promise is not taken lightly.”
Klaus extended his hand. Zawawi shook it. That was a good sign – at least the General was still prepared to shake his hand.
Klaus climbed back into his jeep, and the armed escort climbed in with him. When he emerged from the forest track onto the road, he stopped to let them off. They stood watching as his jeep disappeared down the road toward Bora Nafasi.
Klaus didn’t like the sound of this. It was imperative that the incumbent government was overthrown and replaced – and that it was replaced by a regime the West had some chance of controlling. Feeding the FRA with money and weapons was a key part of the deal.
Money from West Equatorial’s mining revenue was directed to accounts outside Husuni, then shifted around between multiple investment funds in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. From there, it was transferred to the FRA, either in the form of cash deposits or armaments. That was the system Atkins’ predecessor had put in place, and it had been happening smoothly for the last year and a half.
So what the fuck’s going on? This isn’t likely to be an administrative screw-up. Those transfers have been happening without a hitch ever since we struck the deal with Zawawi. This is no accident. Someone’s turned off the tap.
He’d need to get van Owen to track down what had happened. With his funds cut off, there was no way Zawawi was going to cooperate.
When Klaus reached Bora Nafasi it was late in the afternoon. The West Equatorial compound was on the far side of the city, another half-hour away. He hadn’t eaten since early morning and hunger was gnawing at his gut, so he took a short detour, turning the jeep down a street lined with restaurants, bars, and street traders’ stalls. A quick meal wouldn’t take long. He parked next to a boarded-up shop and crossed the street, heading for an open-fronted café.
He’d eaten there before. The furnishings were rough, but the food was good. He ordered a beer, and a serve of some highly-spiced chicken stew. Everything here was loaded with fiery spices; he longed for good German food and fried potatoes.
Klaus sat drinking his beer, idly scanning the crowd milling in the dusty street. An occasional car drove by, and one or two ancient motorcycles of indeterminate make; for the rest, it was foot traffic or donkey-carts. Contact with the west had brought electricity and plumbing to Husuni, but most households didn’t have them. There was a money economy, but more than half the population still bartered goods without using cash. The government taxed anyone who owned a business, and corruption was rife, with business owners bribing local officials to minimise their taxes. Foreign companies like West Equatorial were taxed at exorbitant rates. They were the only reliable source of tax income the government had.
The fact that the foreign companies stayed in the country and paid up bore testament to the huge potential profits to be made from Husuni’s natural resources. The foreign companies were hanging on, waiting for some future government to bring in a regime friendlier to foreign investment. That was the phrase they used if they discussed it at all. What they meant was, a government that would tax them at lower rates and be more lenient in allowing them to exploit the natural resources as they liked.
The café owner delivered a fresh beer to Klaus’s table without being asked, and took his empty glass away. Klaus nodded his thanks and handed over more money. The beer was good and cold, and the day was still hot.
Across the street, two white men came out of a bar. Klaus set his beer down, his attention caught. They looked familiar. They looked like—
Yes, he was certain. They were two of Eroica’s men.
What the hell are they doing in Bora Nafasi? Does that mean that damned thief is here too?
The short stocky one with the moustache turned his head and looked in Klaus’s direction, and for an instant, their eyes locked. The man nudged his companion and they headed off in the opposite direction, quickly becoming obscured in the crowd.
Fucking Eroica! Surely he hasn’t found out I’m here? No, that’s not possible. It has to be a coincidence. But what the hell would he be doing here? What would bring an art thief to a place like this?
If Eroica was in Husuni, Klaus thought, it was a bad choice on his part. Foreigners stood out because there were so few of them, and they were generally treated with suspicion. Eroica wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. Homosexuality wasn’t accepted in Husuni culture, and homosexual acts were against the law. With distaste, Klaus thought about a series of brutal murders two or three months before – young men beaten to death, their bodies left in public places. It was an open secret that the victims were gay men and the murders were ‘punishment killings’. Eroica would need to be careful, or he’d attract the attention of the local vigilantes.
Not that I’m responsible for him, Klaus told himself. He’s not my problem.
The café owner brought out Klaus’s food and asked whether he needed another beer. Klaus declined, holding up his glass to show it was still more than half full.
As he began to eat, Klaus looked at his watch. It would take another twenty-five minutes to get back to the West Equatorial compound, and he needed to alert van Owen and Richardson to the problem with Zawawi’s money.
Klaus left the jeep at the company garage and walked across the compound to van Owen’s bungalow. He knocked on the door, and after a short while van Owen appeared, barefoot and dishevelled. He kept the door half-closed.
“We need to talk,” Klaus said before van Owen could speak.
“Can’t it wait till morning?”
“No. It’s important.”
Van Owen huffed in annoyance. He half-turned, and spoke quietly to someone who was hidden by the door. There was a minute of scrabbling inside the room, and a young Husuni woman brushed past van Owen and hurried away across the compound. She kept her eyes down, avoiding Klaus’s gaze.
“What the hell’s the matter with you, van Owen? You should leave the local girls alone.”
Stepping aside to let Klaus in, van Owen said, “She was perfectly willing. In fact, I’d say she was enjoying herself.”
“That won’t count for anything if her father or her brothers find out. You know how the locals deal with situations like this.”
Van Owen flopped down into an armchair and gestured for Klaus to take a seat on the sofa. “So, what’s so important that you have to interrupt my quiet evening at home?”
“I’ve been to see Zawawi today.”
“He’s got an excuse to stall, if what he told me is correct. It seems our last deposit hasn’t made it into the FRA’s bank accounts.”
Klaus watched van Owen’s face assume a smooth, closed expression.
“Have you checked that what he’s saying is true?” Van Owen’s voice was careful.
“Not yet, I just got back – but if it is true, then what’s happened to the money? You’re the one who oversees the special funding streams. You need to get onto this and find out what’s gone wrong.”
Still poker-faced, van Owen said, “Could be a problem at one of the investment houses we use.”
“For fuck’s sake, van Owen—!”
“What’s your problem, Berendt? Do you have a point to make?”
“My point,” Klaus ground out, “is that this is a fuck-up that needs fixing, and you ought to be worried about it. Zawawi’s already going slow on his promises; this only gives him another excuse. We need to get him moving on the coup, and that’s not going to happen while there are problems with the payments.”
“If you had him under proper control, Berendt, he wouldn’t be dragging his feet like this in the first place.”
A rap on the door interrupted them. Van Owen got up to see who it was, and opened the door to let Richardson in.
“I saw Volker come in here, so I came over to get the news on Zawawi.” Richardson looked from one to the other, alert to the tension in the room. “Is something wrong?”
Klaus said, “There’s been a fuck-up. Zawawi says our last payment didn’t make it to their bank. Whatever happened, we need to get this fixed. He’ll use it as an excuse to delay the coup.”
Richardson looked at van Owen, whose face now wore an expression of suppressed fury. “What’s your take on it, Lennar? What’s gone wrong?”
Van Owen crossed his arms belligerently. “If this has happened, and it’s not just some bullshit story Zawawi’s concocted, then most likely it’s a cock-up at one of the banks. Someone overlooked making a transfer on time, or sent it to the wrong place. I’ll look into it in the morning, when the financial houses are open for business and we can get in contact. As I told Berendt.” He cast a poisonous look in Klaus’s direction.
Richardson sat down on van Owen’s coffee table, facing Klaus. “How badly is Zawawi pissed off?”
“Hard to say. He’s using this to remind us how much we need him – posturing and threats, claiming that this will delay his preparations.”
“And will it?”
Klaus shook his head. “He’s in a position to move now; has been for weeks. He’s got all the equipment and ammunition he needs. He’s delaying things so he can milk another payment or two out of us. If something’s fucked up and his money hasn’t come through, it’ll give him an excuse to be difficult.” He glared balefully at van Owen. “We need to understand what’s gone wrong, van Owen, and get it fixed up, fast.”
Van Owen shrugged offhandedly. “It’s an accounting problem; I’ll sort it out. Don’t get your panties in a bunch, Berendt.”
Klaus snarled, “Why is it that every accountant I’ve ever dealt with is a complete arsehole?”
A sarcastic smirk darkened Van Owen’s face. “We study it as part of our training. What’s your excuse?”
“Settle down, both of you,” Richardson said sharply. “We have a problem to solve. Quit sniping at each other.”
Van Owen sighed in exaggerated resignation. “All right, Richardson, I’ll get onto it in the morning. I can’t start making international phone calls now. All the financial houses are closed.”
Klaus stood up. “This had better not be a big problem, van Owen.”
He let himself out, and walked back across the compound to his own bungalow.
When the alarm went off at 6.30, Klaus was already out of bed, showered and dressed. He hadn’t slept well. All his usual sleep disciplines had failed him.
Zawawi’s missing money – what had gone wrong? Van Owen would spend time this morning contacting the various banks and investment houses that formed the money chain by which funds travelled to the FRA’s bank account. Maybe van Owen’s assertions were right; maybe it was just an administrative error that could be corrected quickly. Klaus still felt uneasy. The money transfer chain had been working faultlessly for a year and a half. Banks’ ability to make electronic money transfers had all but eliminated human error. The sudden failure of a proven system rang alarm bells for Klaus.
Had someone managed to break into the chain and halt the transfers, or redirect the money? And if so, who? And if van Owen took too long over tracking down where things had gone wrong – if getting Zawawi’s funding to him was too slow – relations with the FRA would be damaged badly and the coup would be delayed even further.
Just before eight, as Klaus was getting ready to go over to his office, Richardson turned up.
“Listen, Volker – let van Owen get on with ringing the banks this morning, hey? Give him the space to get on with the job.”
Klaus itched to stand over van Owen while he traced the money just to make sure he didn’t waste any time, but he’d already decided that wouldn’t be productive. “Don’t worry, I won’t get in his way,” he assured Richardson.
Richardson looked relieved. “He doesn’t react well when he thinks other people are telling him how to do his job.”
Klaus snorted. “You mean, he doesn’t react well when he thinks I’m telling him how to do his job.”
“Personalities aside – he does know what he’s doing, and if we leave him alone for a few hours, he’ll do it. We’ll get this sorted out; we’ll get Zawawi’s money into his bank account, and you can get things back on track with the FRA.”
All through the morning, Klaus made himself go about his business in routine fashion. He sat behind his desk, working his way through a pile of papers that needed his signature, and glanced at the clock from time to time trying to gauge how much progress van Owen might have made.
About eleven o’clock, Richardson put his head in at the door. “I’m going over to see how van Owen’s got on with the banks. Coming?”
Klaus threw his pen down onto the desktop and followed Richardson out.
When they got to the Accounting offices, van Owen’s door was shut. Richardson knocked quietly and pushed the door open a fraction. Standing beside him, Klaus saw the colour drain out of Richardson’s face.
The door was pushed fully open, and the two stepped in to van Owen’s office – van Owen’s empty office.
Richardson brushed past Klaus and crossed the corridor to where the accounting clerk had her desk. “Where’s van Owen?”
The clerk looked up. “Mr van Owen had to go out. He had an urgent phone call, and he had to go straight away. He said he won’t be back till late.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“No, Mr Richardson.”
“Did he leave any messages about the job he was working on this morning?”
“No.” The clerk looked worried. “Is everything all right, Mr Richardson?”
“Yes, of course. Nothing that can’t wait. Thanks, Susie.”
“Something stinks here, Richardson,” Klaus said as they walked back across the compound. “What would van Owen have to go out for in such a damned hurry that would take priority over the money fuck-up? It makes no sense. He’s up to something, and I don’t like the look of it.”
“Hold your horses, Berendt,” Richardson soothed. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. If he’s not doing what he said he would, there has to be a reason. Let’s see what we can find out.”
At the company garage, they were told that van Owen had come in just after nine o’clock with an urgent request for a vehicle and had left immediately. The entry in the loans book said, ‘Finance meeting, Bora Nafasi’.
“You don’t know who he was meeting?” Richardson asked the bookings clerk.
The clerk shrugged. “He’s the Senior Accountant. Why would I ask?”
Atkins looked surprised when he was asked if he knew where van Owen had gone. “He didn’t say anything to me. He had no reason to: if it’s about finance, it’s his concern.”
The two went back to Klaus’s office, which was the closest.
“All right,” said Richardson. “Let’s take stock of the situation. We were expecting van Owen to have tracked down the glitch with Zawawi’s money by now; we don’t know how far he’s got with that. We know he’s gone off somewhere, but we don’t know where he’s gone or why. We’ve don’t know how long he’s gone for, but we can probably kiss today goodbye in terms of getting the money problem sorted out. It’d be better if we didn’t have the delay – Zawawi won’t like it – but I suppose it can’t be helped.” He stopped, frowning.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Richardson. What if van Owen’s got something to hide, and he’s taken off? He might be heading for the airport—”
“Berendt! Keep your hair on, will you? I know you don’t trust van Owen, but he’s CIA. He’s one of us. Let’s not get sidetracked by imaginings, hey?”
Just before five o’clock, Klaus got a message asking him to come to Atkins’ office immediately for an urgent meeting. He arrived to find all the managers and project leaders jammed into the room.
Atkins himself came in once they were all seated, and Klaus thought he looked anxious.
“Gentlemen.” Atkins nodded at the assembly. “Serious news, I’m afraid. One of our senior staff is missing, and may have come to harm.”
Klaus looked across the table at Richardson and raised an eyebrow.
“The senior accountant, Lennar van Owen, was called out this morning to an urgent meeting. His vehicle was found this afternoon on the road to Port Bandari, shot full of bullet holes and burnt out. Van Owen himself was nowhere to be seen.”
Around the table, the listeners broke out into a babble of comment. Atkins held up his hand for silence.
“The vehicle was found by a truck driver on his way to Bora Nafasi. He notified the police, and they attended the scene. There was no sign of van Owen, either alive or…” He hesitated. “Or dead. The area’s being searched. Van Owen may have been taken hostage by one of the rebel groups operating in the countryside. And so…” Atkins hesitated again. “And so, I ask you all to be particularly vigilant in the coming days, and alert to your own safety. For the time being, if you have business that takes you outside the compound, I would ask that you don’t travel alone. Also, please make sure when you’re travelling on company business that at least one other person in the organisation knows your route and your destination. Lennar van Owen didn’t leave sufficient information when he left today. No doubt he thought there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t be safe. Today’s events have demonstrated that we all need to be alert and take reasonable steps to ensure our safety.”
When the meeting broke up, Richardson and Klaus went to Klaus’s bungalow.
“This is serious,” Richardson said. “Van Owen could be dead. Or he could have been taken by the secret police, or one of the militia groups.”
“Or he could have gone rogue. Shot up his own jeep and set it on fire to throw us off the scent.”
Richardson began to protest; Klaus cut him off. “No possibilities can be discarded until there’s evidence one way or the other. This could be the work of the secret police, or the FRA, or one of the other opposition groups. Or van Owen could have disappeared for his own reasons. Open mind, Richardson; keep an open mind.”
“All right, fair enough – but you need to keep an open mind, too. I know Van Owen isn’t your best buddy, but you need to admit the possibility that he hasn’t gone bad.”
That evening Klaus sat in the Hollywood Bar, the remnants of his dinner at his elbow and a cold beer in front of him, listening to the rattle and drone of the ancient air conditioner struggling to cool down the heavy, hot air.
He'd come in with a carload of West Equatorial staff; the others were gathered round the pool table at the far end of the room. Glad to be out of the compound, Klaus claimed a quiet corner of the bar for himself where he could observe and think. The usual conversations eddied around him: jokes, complaints, the trivia of the working day.
After seeing Bonham in the street the previous evening, Klaus had half-expected Eroica to show up somewhere, so he wasn’t surprised when he saw him walk through the door. The man breezed in, looking cool and crisp in spite of the heat and oppressive humidity. When he saw Klaus, Eroica smiled like a sunburst and sashayed up to the bar next to him.
Klaus clenched his jaw. If the bastard blows my cover—
“Hello! I didn’t know you’d be here. What a surprise!” Eroica signalled to the barman.
Klaus expected him to order some pansy cocktail, but he asked for a double shot of rum. There was a hardness around the man’s eyes as he looked at Klaus.
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” he repeated. “So, no nonsense about my following you around, Major.”
“I’m under cover,” Klaus growled in a dangerous undertone. “Keep your voice down. What are you doing here? There’s a bloody revolution about to break out.”
Eroica smiled, sardonic. “I had noticed. The boys and I have come to do some collecting. While the government’s expelling foreign officials and confiscating their bank balances, there are a lot of big houses with no locks on the doors.”
Klaus curled his lip. “Collecting? Looting, you mean.”
Eroica gave him a quelling look. “Nothing so indiscriminate. We have a particular transaction in mind. When we’ve done what we came for, we’ll be leaving.” He sipped his rum. “So, what’s your name? What do you do here, big boy?” He smirked at his own parody of a chat-up line.
“Volker Berendt. I’m with West Equatorial Mining.”
“Blood diamonds.” Eroica huffed in contempt.
“Bullshit. What would you know about it?”
“I did my research before I came to Husuni. You know the circles I move in, Major; my sources are usually impeccable. Half the diamonds that are mined in this country are sold outside the legitimate diamond trade. West Equatorial’s no exception.” Eroica’s expression bordered on disgust. “Trading in conflict diamonds is a dirty business. Dangerous, too.”
“The only danger I’m in at the moment is being exposed by you,” Klaus snarled. “I’d prefer it if you’d get lost, and stay the hell away from me while you’re here.”
“Well, your alter ego is just as boorish as your at-home personality.”
“Any time, darling. You know that.” Eroica tossed his curls back and swallowed a mouthful of rum.
Klaus glared at him.
Sipping his drink, Eroica watched Klaus through lowered eyelashes. “So, Volker, which party are you backing in the impending revolution?”
“It’s not a fucking football match. People are going to die.”
“But will you be trying to keep the present government in power, or will you be assisting the opposition to oust them?” Eroica’s eyes had become sharp. “Which way does the blood diamond money flow after it’s been laundered, hmmm?”
Klaus clenched his teeth and concentrated on keeping his temper in check. “Listen, thief. The less interest you take in local politics, the safer you’ll be. Just keep your nose out of it. If you’re bloody fool enough to fuck around with breaking into houses and stealing valuables, be it on your own head – but if the local authorities catch you at it, they’ll kill you. They shoot first and ask questions after, and they don’t like foreigners.”
Eroica raised an eyebrow. “Not even you and your diamond mining cronies?”
“They barely tolerate those of us who work for the foreign companies. If it weren’t for the sky-high taxes they levy, and the bribes placed in the right hands, we’d be expelled – if we weren’t murdered first. If you’ve got any sense at all, you’ll take my advice and get out of Husuni.”
Eroica downed the rest of his rum. “I don’t expect to be here too much longer. Stay one step ahead of trouble, Volker.” He trailed languid fingers along Klaus’s stubbled jaw and glided away toward the door.
Klaus didn’t watch Eroica leave. He concentrated hard on his beer, and as soon as it was empty, called for another.
As Klaus poured out the boiling water for his first cup of Nescafé, a knock sounded sharply on his front door. He went to see who wanted him this early. It was Richardson, looking grim.
“You’d better come and see this. A body’s been dumped just outside the gates. It’s Zawawi.”
Klaus pulled the door closed behind him, and together they hurried to the compound’s front entrance.
The gates were wide open. Three of their armed security guards stood by, eyeing the corpse uneasily. Next to them, Atkins and the company’s paramedic huddled together in uneasy discussion.
Klaus and Richardson squatted down beside the body. Zawawi’s killers had done a thorough job: three bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen, and a fourth shot at close range through the centre of the forehead. Richardson dug into the corpse’s pockets, searching.
Atkins cleared his throat nervously. “Richardson, don’t you think we should let the authorities deal with this?”
Ignoring him, Richardson pulled open the dead man’s shirt, and lifted out a blood-smeared card with the stylised black and white image of an eye printed on it. “Secret police. A warning.” He handed the card to Klaus.
Klaus turned it over and read the untidily-scrawled words written on the back: Berrent you’r next.
Atkins moved closer. “What’s this about? Who was this man? What’s on that card?”
Klaus pushed the card into his top pocket without letting Atkins see it. He and Richardson both stood up, and moved Atkins back a step or two.
“He was a local militia leader.” Klaus glanced around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard. “The government saw him as a threat. That’s what got him killed – but dumping him here was a warning to us to stay out of local politics.”
“But we don’t—”
“We deal with the local landowners and men of influence. The government probably has suspicions that we interfere. I’d suggest you alert the operators at the mines that they need to be on the lookout for trouble.”
Atkins stared at the body. Flies crawled over the lifeless form, gathering at the dead man’s eyes and the edges of the congealing blood-tracks. “Who did this?”
“Secret police,” Richardson said, keeping his voice low. “So be careful what you say when you talk to the authorities. Get one of those security men to find something to cover up the body. Call the police and get them to take the body away – but mind what you say. Don’t pass any opinions, don’t ask any questions, and don’t let on you know who he was or who killed him. Then meet us at my office.”
Richardson and Klaus went back into the compound, leaving Atkins to deal with the corpse.
Once they were inside Richardson’s office with the door closed, Klaus pulled out the card once more and threw it onto the desk, the handwritten message facing upward. “They know I’m involved with the FRA. They’ll be watching me – that’s going to limit my usefulness.”
Richardson frowned. “Dikembe’s a bad man to have as an enemy, and if he’s watching, we’ll have to tread carefully. But you need to get in contact with the FRA, because they’ll probably go on a rampage to avenge Zawawi’s murder, and the coup preparations might get lost in the uproar. Are there any obvious successors in line to take over from Zawawi?”
Klaus snorted. “Of course there aren’t. Zawawi didn’t groom any successors in case they got ambitious and decided to make a move on him. The FRA was a one-man show. Now that Zawawi’s gone, there’s going to be a lot of in-fighting. The FRA might fragment if they can’t agree on a new leader.”
There was a knock on the door, and Richardson let Atkins in to join them.
Anger smouldered in every line of Atkins’ face. “You two seem to know quite a lot about that dead body outside the gate,” he seethed. “I think there’s something going on here that you need to tell me about.”
Klaus looked across at Richardson, who was, technically, the ranking officer on this mission. He raised an eyebrow: Go on. Tell him enough to keep him from causing a fuck-up.
“Well? Come on!” Atkins spluttered. “Don’t just look at each other like a pair of schoolboys caught smoking behind the bicycle shed. I need to know if there’s something going on that’ll affect West Equatorial’s productivity.”
“Something like a civil war?” Richardson suggested.
“What?” Atkins’ jaw dropped.
“Listen, Atkins,” Klaus broke in, “you need to be worried about more than productivity. The dead man, Zawawi, was the leader of one of the parties opposed to the government. The secret police got rid of him because he was posing a threat to the President. With Zawawi dead, his forces will start fighting amongst themselves, and one or another of his men is likely to make an attempt on President Kisulu’s life just to prove he’s the one who ought to be Zawawi’s successor – but they won’t be able to follow through and form an alternative government.”
“So, what’ll follow will be all-out civil war,” Richardson finished.
Open-mouthed, Atkins looked from one to the other.
“There was nothing this specific in my briefing from Head Office,” he said at last. “So how is it that you two are both so well informed? Does Head Office know about this? And if they do, why didn’t they tell me? And if they don’t – why don’t they?”
“What you need to know,” said Richardson, “is that we’re in a precarious situation here. The country’s on the edge of anarchy. Forget profits and productivity for a while: you need to think about survival. If open conflict breaks out, your main concern will be getting your expatriate workers out.”
Atkins took out his ever-present handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his face and neck. “Christ. Is it inevitable, do you think?”
Klaus said, “Right now, the government would think it has the upper hand. They’ve eliminated the President’s main rival. What happens next depends whether Zawawi’s forces do anything rash – or whether the President’s forces decide to take further action against them.”
“How likely is it that either of those things will happen?”
Richardson shook his head. “What do you think, Atkins? My advice is to get on the phone to North Rivers and the other outlying camps, and tell them to get ready for trouble. When it starts, it’s going to get very bad, very fast.”
Atkins turned to go. He looked shaky.
Positioning himself between Atkins and the door, Klaus said, “Now, remember: be careful what you do and what you say. When you’re talking to the police, or any other Husuni nationals, don’t say too much and don’t ask too many questions.”
“And don’t repeat what we’ve said here,” Richardson added.
Atkins’ hand shook as he turned the door handle. Neither Klaus nor Richardson spoke until Atkins’ footsteps had faded away into the distance.
“You realise,” Klaus said at last, “that we can’t just wait to see what happens next? With Zawawi dead, things are going to turn to shit in a hurry.”
Richardson rubbed both hands over his face, took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Klaus recognised the action as a sign that for once, Richardson was shaken out of his usual level-headed calm.
“Yeah, you’re right. Zawawi’s death might be the start of a longer string of assassinations. I guess Dikembe’s decided that the FRA’s a genuine threat to the President.”
“To the President, or to Dikembe himself,” Klaus said darkly.
Richardson nodded, thoughtful. “Yeah, there’s a lot of self-interest at work there. If Kisulu’s regime gets toppled, then Dikembe’s out on his ass as well. He’s lining his pockets just as much as Kisulu is. He doesn’t want regime change either.”
“Unless it changes to his even greater advantage.” Klaus looked pointedly at Richardson.
“What d’you mean?”
“He gets rid of Zawawi; Kisulu breathes easier with his known rival out of the picture; and Dikembe is the hero of the day for shoring up Kisulu’s leadership. And then – when Kisulu’s lulled into a false sense of security – Dikembe makes a move on him and seizes power.”
“Jesus.” Richardson got up and walked over to the window. He turned and looked back at Klaus. “Are you just painting worst-case scenarios, or do you think that’s a real possibility?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Zawawi and his inner circle over the last six months. Most of them think Dikembe has designs on the top job. Zawawi himself believed that Dikembe was just biding his time, and the day would come when he’d use his secret police to get rid of Kisulu. Zawawi always regarded Dikembe as his greatest barrier, not Kisulu himself. And believe me: Fabrice Dikembe is the last person we want in control of this country. He’d make Kisulu look like a benevolent ruler.”
Klaus watched Richardson stare out of the window, hands shoved into his pockets, shoulders rigid.
“Richardson, Zawawi’s assassination changes everything. We’ve had the FRA getting ready to stage a coup and take control of the country, but now, with Zawawi dead, the FRA isn’t going to be in any shape to take over. They were our check on Dikembe. Without them, he becomes the biggest threat to Kisulu, and the biggest threat to the West.” Klaus let that sink in for a few moments, then said, “I think the situation needs an extreme solution.”
Richardson turned back to face Klaus. “Maybe you’re right. If Fabrice Dikembe seizes power, there’ll be a blood-bath. Reprisals against his enemies; mass executions of dissidents. Not to mention months, maybe years, of civil war. He’s not universally popular, and when the blood starts to flow, all sorts of opposition groups will jump into the fray.”
“It’ll be a fucking mess.”
“And the mission will have been a complete failure.” Richardson paused. “So, what’s your analysis?”
“We need to remove Dikembe. If Kisulu stays in power for the time being the country won’t be any worse off, and we can buy some time to get the FRA back into shape. But if we leave Dikembe where he is, it’s only a matter of time before he stages a coup of his own.”
“Extreme solution, then,” Richardson said.
“It’s what I’d recommend.”
“Van Owen’s the targeted removals specialist. He’s missing in action. One of us will have to step up.”
Klaus looked Richardson squarely in the eye. “I’ll do it.”
Lying in the dark, drowning under the weight of heat and humidity, Klaus gave up on sleep. The fan turned lethargically overhead, stirring the syrupy air, bringing no relief. For the hundredth time, he turned the events of the last twenty-four hours over in his mind.
An extreme solution: they’d agreed it was the only way they could proceed. Without it, the most dangerous man in Husuni would be in a position to seize the reins of power. Removing him before he could do so would buy time, until their own chosen usurpers were ready to sweep the incumbent President out of office.
Distasteful, and risky – but leaving the country’s future to chance wasn’t an option. They’d been sent here to engineer a change of government that would herald better days for their own agencies and the interests they represented. Klaus and Richardson had outlined a plan that afternoon; they’d go over it again the next day and tie up all the details. Then, in the evening, Klaus would carry out the operation.
Dikembe’s quarters would be well-guarded. His mansion was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, just like the home of any other rich and important man in Bora Nafasi, and the grounds were patrolled by men from his own personal protection unit. But Klaus had penetrated tough locations before, and in places where the security systems were more advanced than Dikembe’s would be.
Once he was inside the man’s private space, Klaus was confident that he could achieve his goal. There’d be an opportunity – and when the opportunity came, he’d take it. But Klaus knew this job was a one-way trip. He’d signed his own death warrant. He might get in; he might get the job done – but he sure as hell wouldn’t get out.
What was that?
Klaus sensed rather than saw a slight deepening of shadow on the wall. There was no sound to go with it.
Pulling his magnum out from under the pillow, Klaus slipped off the bed and melted into the dark in the corner of the room. When the shadow resolved itself into a human shape, he sprang forward, seizing the intruder by the throat, and slammed the man up against the wall.
It was Eroica.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Limey?” Klaus let go the man’s throat.
The thief rubbed at his neck, swallowing hard, grimacing. “Hardly the welcome I’ve fantasised about.”
“What do you want?” Klaus turned on a small lamp beside the bed so he could see Eroica properly.
Eroica reached inside his shirt and lifted out a folded document several pages thick. “You need to see this. I got James to do some investigation into West Equatorial’s black-market diamond trading—”
“You did what? What the fuck for?”
“Background investigation, Major – preparations for the heist. West Equatorial’s a big player here. Influential. And – as I said to you the other night – it’s well known that a good percentage of the diamonds mined by West Equatorial are sold outside the official diamond trade. I was curious.”
“Curious! Listen, thief—”
“James tracked the money from the sales. Most of this information’s highly confidential – the only way to get hold of it is by hacking into their electronic records.” Eroica held up the papers but kept a firm hold on them. “I have to say his report was very informative. James’s investigations show that the money goes on a long, circuitous journey and ends up right back where it started from, right here in Husuni. In the hands of one of the guerilla groups opposing the government.”
“Give me that.” Klaus made to snatch the papers out of Eroica’s hand, but with lightning-fast reflexes the thief jerked the document out of the way.
“In a moment, Major. Now, apparently, West Equatorial started funding this guerilla group about eighteen months ago. Substantial sums, too – I imagine there’s something big at stake. Should I try to guess what it is?”
“Fuck you, Eroica – give me that!” Klaus snatched at the papers again and missed.
“Just recently, the money’s stopped going to that bank account.” This time, Eroica held the document out to Klaus, and his voice became very serious. “It’s been diverted to a different recipient. The Minister for Military Affairs, Fabrice Dikembe.”
Klaus took the papers. “Dikembe?”
“Yes. Look at page six.”
Klaus shuffled through the closely-typed pages.
“Look: there.” Eroica pointed. “The money goes from Bora Nafasi to Karachi, then to Kyoto, and so on, and so forth – and then from the bank in Singapore it’s directed into Dikembe’s personal account.”
“Who the fuck ordered that?” Klaus muttered, not expecting an answer.
“The same person who used to authorize the money to be transferred to the guerilla group.” Eroica pointed again. “See: the same authorization number.”
“That son of a bitch van Owen!”
If this information was right, Van Owen had undermined everything they’d worked for. He’d thwarted the coup. And Dikembe was the very man they didn’t want to have more power in Husuni. He’d be worse than Kisulu: more brutal, less friendly to the West, and impossible to control.
Had Dikembe taken the decision to murder Zawawi on his own? Or had van Owen been working with him, supplying information as well as money? Someone had informed Dikembe and his secret police that he, Klaus, was working with Zawawi. They’d let him know that they knew – the death squad’s calling-card: Berrent you’r next. Had van Owen sold him out to Dikembe, along with Zawawi? And what the hell was van Owen going to get out of it?
Fucking van Owen. I knew from the start we couldn’t trust him.
Klaus looked up from the document. Eroica was standing watching him, his blue eyes grave.
“I thought this information looked significant,” Eroica said. “What does it mean in practical terms?”
“Bloodshed. That’s what means.” Klaus folded the document up and threw it onto his nightstand. “Husuni’s on the brink of civil war. You know that. The government’s corrupt – the people would be better off without them. The only man who had a chance of bringing anything resembling justice to the country was murdered by the secret police last night – his body was dumped at the gates here as a warning to me. Yes, that’s right: they know I’m involved in this.” He gestured at the document. “And that document confirms something I’ve suspected for a long time – there’s a traitor in our camp.”
“How much time do you think there’ll be before the fighting breaks out?” Eroica asked.
“The dead man’s troops are likely to start reprisals at any moment; then the government and the secret police will retaliate. There is no time.”
Eroica looked tense; Klaus could see he was busy thinking of his plans for the ‘particular transaction’ that had brought him to Husuni.
“Listen to me, Eroica,” Klaus said. “You have to get out of here. Leave the country. Forget whatever it is you came here to steal – just round up the rest of your pack of thieves and leave as soon as you can.”
Eroica shook his head. “No, impossible. We’re twenty-four hours away from securing what we came for. When we leave, it leaves with us.”
“Look, all hell’s breaking loose here. What the fuck could be worth risking your necks for?”
“It’s a painting by Caravaggio: Achilles and Patroclus. It was stolen from the Uffizi in 1912 and disappeared from view for the next forty years. A Dutch investor bought it on the black market and brought it to Africa in the 1950s. The man who’s owned it for the last fifteen years was an official in the Belgian Embassy in Bora Nafasi. When the government expelled the Ambassador and his staff, the painting was left behind.”
Klaus shook his head in disbelief. “And you’re prepared to risk your life and your men’s lives to steal it? Jesus Christ, it’s only a fucking picture!”
“It’s not ‘only a fucking picture’, Major. This is one of Caravaggio’s great secular masterpieces. This is our one chance to get it out of Husuni. It might be destroyed in the fighting if we don’t. Even if it isn’t, it’ll be out of reach for at least another generation.”
“So now you’re rescuing it, not stealing it? Look, Eroica, it’s not worth risking your lives for—”
“We only need twenty-four hours—”
“Fuck it, Eroica, you haven’t got twenty-four hours! Will you listen, for once in your life, and get the hell out of this place before the fighting starts?”
Eroica’s eyes blazed with defiant fury. “And who are you to give me orders? We’re not pulling out before we get what we came for—!”
“Eroica, for fuck’s sake—”
“Give me one good reason why I should listen to you!”
Klaus hesitated for a split second – then seized Eroica by the shoulders and kissed him.
My god, what am I doing?
Memories floated up of Sister Theresa’s disapproval. Herr Hinkel’s disappointment. His father’s disgust. Years of shame. Years of denial. But none of that was relevant: all he was doing was finding a way to make Eroica listen to him – wasn’t he?
Carefully, he eased back from the kiss. The thief was staring at him, stunned.
“Now will you listen to me, you fool?”
“I want you to leave Husuni. As soon as you can. I want you safe. I need you to be safe.” He told himself it was meant to be a ploy to get Eroica to agree – but as Klaus said the words, he recognised the truth in them. He did need Eroica to leave the country before hostilities broke out, and not just to ensure he wouldn’t complicate the mission. “You have to go, Dorian. I want you out of danger.”
Then Dorian’s arms were around him, and their tongues were sliding together. Desire surged through Klaus’s blood. He’d spent half his life lying to other people, lying to himself – lying to Dorian, who was his every desire personified. This time tomorrow, most likely he’d be dead. Was there any point in lying anymore?
Klaus tangled his hands in the thief’s hair, fingers threading among the curls. He changed the angle of his mouth against Dorian’s and his tongue slid deeper. The thief responded with a throaty moan, and pulled Klaus’s hips closer, grinding against him.
Part of Klaus’s mind resisted – It’s wrong! It’s unnatural! – but it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
They stumbled backwards toward the bed. Clothes were shed and dropped on the floor, and they tumbled onto the bed together.
Dorian’s slow, careful hands were a revelation to Klaus as they traced every plane and dip of his body, learning his shape, exploring his responses to their touch. The insides of his thighs, the hollows of his armpits, the margin of his hair at the back of his neck — had anyone ever touched him there before? So sensitive, so deliciously sensual – Dorian’s gentle hands and sly tongue were teaching him things he’d never known about his own body. Things he’d never be able to forget again.
Their bodies pressed together, limbs tangling, skin against skin. Hands and fingers teased, soothed, explored. He heard Dorian purr with delight as his touch became more audacious, more demanding, restraint thrown to the wind. He was beyond coherent thought, drunk on sensation. Drunk on Dorian. Hungry for his body, greedy for his touch. Breathing Dorian’s scent, tasting his mouth, Klaus abandoned the pretence and denial that had been his protection and his punishment for as long as he could remember.
Hours later, Klaus watched as Dorian dressed.
The thief came and sat on the side of the bed. He looked relaxed and happy.
Well, so he should. He’s got what he’s wanted for years. Klaus’s conscience pricked at him: No – no more denial. All right, then: what I’ve wanted for years, too.
“Just promise me you’re going to leave Husuni.”
“Of course.” Dorian smiled. “Just as soon as we’ve got the Caravaggio.”
“Dorian! Jesus, Dorian, have you heard anything I’ve said? Fighting’s going to break out any time now; foreigners are going to be killed on sight. Are you suicidal? Do you want your men to be murdered?”
“Klaus, it’ll be all right. We’re ready to hit the place tonight. We’ll be in and out within half an hour. Then we’ll go. I promise.” Smiling, he ran his fingers through Klaus’s hair. “When I’m back in England I’ll call you. You’ll be in Bonn after this?”
Klaus said nothing.
“Klaus?” Dorian’s smile disappeared. “Klaus, what?”
I can’t tell him I probably won’t make it out of here. At least this way he’ll get out himself. Maybe.
“I’ll call you from Bonn. Now, go on – get out of here. The sun’s coming up. Go before anyone’s around to see you leaving.”
“Dorian, go. Now.”
Late in the morning, Klaus woke. The sun was pushing through the slats of the shutters on his window, and the air was oppressively hot. He sat up in bed. He was naked. He allowed himself a brief smile, remembering how he got that way. Then his smile faded. He’d tried to convince Dorian to leave before open conflict broke out – but he didn’t think he’d succeeded, and there was nothing he could do about it now. And it was late, and he and Richardson had work to do.
He showered, dressed, and drank two cups of Nescafé. Then he picked up the document Dorian had given him, stuffed it into his pocket, and went across the compound to Richardson’s bungalow.
When he was shown evidence of van Owen’s duplicity, Richardson was appalled that he hadn’t seen it coming.
“I should have listened to you,” he said. “But – well, both of you seemed to rub each other up the wrong way, so I didn’t take as much notice as I should have. I guess I didn’t want to think there’d be anything in it.”
“I never trusted the bastard,” Klaus said.
“I know you didn’t. But I needed proof, Volker – and now you’ve shown me proof.”
“You’ll have to follow this up, Richardson. I won’t be here.”
Richardson looked steadily at him for a long moment, then said, “You might make it. It doesn’t have to be a suicide mission.”
Klaus raised an eyebrow. “I think you know that’s bullshit, Richardson. Dikembe’s surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day. The odds are, they’ll catch me.”
“There’s always hope.”
“Hope? If you want to hope anything at all, hope that they catch me after I’ve done the job, not before; and that when they kill me, they do it fast.”
Late that night, Klaus rode out of the company compound on the motorcycle he’d bought the first week he was in Husuni. He hadn’t used it much, so people seeing a tall man in dark clothes on a motorcycle wouldn’t immediately think it was him. His full-face helmet and leather gloves concealed the colour of his skin; if anyone saw him, they wouldn’t know that he was a Westerner.
He took an indirect route through Bora Nafasi’s streets up to the luxurious neighbourhood where Fabrice Dikembe had his mansion.
High stone walls crowned with barbed-wire tangles surrounded the house and its spacious gardens. Klaus rode up a side-street, and along a narrow laneway that ran behind the property. He wheeled the bike behind a clump of shrubs, hung the helmet on the handle-bars, and checked his guns and ammunition. He slid his magnum into his shoulder holster; his second handgun went into another holster at his hip. Both were fully loaded, ready to go.
Klaus worked his way slowly along the wall, looking for the best way in. The wall was nearly twice Klaus’s own height, and solid, but about eighty yards down, he found what he was looking for. There was a gateway set into the wall, large enough to admit delivery trucks. The gate was made of timber – and nearly two feet lower than the height of the wall, leaving a gap between the top of the gate and the barbed-wire tangle above.
An odd oversight, Klaus thought, given that Dikembe wanted his home to be secure. The stonework on either side of the gate would provide some shallow hand- and foot-holds. He’d found the way in.
Klaus threaded through the gardens toward the house, a long rambling building with wide verandahs and a shallow-pitched roof. He was about halfway across when the front door opened, spilling yellow light out onto the verandah and the driveway beyond. Klaus dropped, crouching between dense bushes, watching.
Four armed men in uniform came out first, and stood on either side of the door. Next, Dikembe himself, with three other men – two in military uniform festooned with gold braid and polished buttons, and one in a dark suit. They stood talking, laughing, shaking hands. Two cars drew up. The uniformed men got into one, the man in the suit got into the other, and both vehicles drove away. Klaus didn’t recognize any of them.
Dikembe turned and went inside, followed by two of the guards. The other two closed the door, and went off into the grounds, away from where Klaus was hidden.
Four bodyguards. Two inside, two out. There may be more that I haven’t seen.
Crouching in the shadows, Klaus fitted a silencer to his gun. He watched the house. Lights inside were turned off; others turned on. He stayed where he was for a few minutes, then moved toward the building to look for a way in.
He found an unlocked door at the rear. Quietly, he let himself into a store-room of some kind. Moving deeper into the house, he found a darkened kitchen, then a passageway. There seemed to be nobody around.
Slowly, quietly, he moved through the building – listening, watching, always alert to who might be close by.
He turned a corner. Weak light seeped out through an open doorway. Cautiously, he approached.
Beyond the doorway he found a wide room. A single lamp burned dimly on a large, ornate desk. Heavy carven furniture filled the room. An archway at the rear hinted at another space beyond. The floor was covered by a dark, elaborately patterned carpet.
Klaus’s eyes adjusted to the level of illumination. Over by the desk—
On the floor beside the desk a large dark mass lay unmoving; on the other side of the room, two other similar masses.
Klaus stepped closer.
Dikembe’s body lay on the floor, two bullet holes in his forehead. His two dead bodyguards lay at the other side of the room, each killed with a single shot. Three efficient killings – no wasted ammunition, no wasted time.
A professional job.
A footstep sounded softly behind him, and Klaus turned.
Van Owen stepped out of the shadows, a handgun fitted with a silencer held loosely at his side.
“Hello, Volker. If you’ve come to see Dikembe, I’m afraid you’re too late. He’s not speaking to anybody else tonight.” A humourless grin stretched across van Owen’s face. “Not speaking to anybody else, period, I’d say.”
Klaus gripped his own weapon carefully, ready to react. “Is this your work, van Owen?”
Van Owen’s grin darkened. “Did I get in ahead of you?”
“I thought you were working with Dikembe now; you shifted the payments over to him. Were you involved in Zawawi’s murder, too?”
“I didn’t pull the trigger, if that’s what you mean.”
“But you pulled the trigger here, tonight. Who are you working with? What’s in it for you?”
“Come on, Berendt: we’re wasting our time with this shit-hole of a country.” Van Owen’s lip curled in derision. “Pouring money into it, trying to manipulate who runs the place. They’re all the same, Berendt – you know that, whether you’d say so or not. And all those poor schmucks who come here thinking they’re going to make a fortune – they end up with fuck-all. The only way to make money here is to steal it. Like Kisulu and Dikembe – and Zawawi. But I learned a few lessons from them – and now I’m out of here.”
“Theft, betrayal and murder.” Klaus spat the words out as if they left a foul taste in his mouth. “Are you going to tell me you did it all for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars? You can’t set up a new life on that amount of money.”
Van Owen snorted scornfully. “Zawawi’s last payment was just the cherry on top. By the time I’d cleared out Dikembe’s personal accounts and creamed off a comfortable percentage of West Equatorial’s profits for the last year, my pension fund was looking pretty damned healthy. West Equatorial won’t notice anything till the auditors come in at tax time, and Dikembe isn’t going to be concerned about his empty bank accounts anymore.” Subtly, Van Owen’s balance shifted and his grip on his weapon firmed. “And where you’re going, Berendt, you won’t be concerned about any of this anymore, either.”
Van Owen raised his gun.
Before he could pull the trigger, Klaus threw himself down and to one side, below the line of van Owen’s sight, and as he fell he raised his own gun and fired.
The bullet hit van Owen in the face. The man was dead before he hit the floor.
Klaus got to his feet, weapon still at the ready. Van Owen’s body lay still; Klaus could see no signs of life. He stepped closer, and stood looking down at the body of the man he’d never trusted – now lying with his skull smashed and his blood oozing around him.
The sound of distant voices caught Klaus’s attention. More of Dikembe’s bodyguards, patrolling the grounds.
Speedily, he moved back into the dark corridor, leaving the room full of dead men behind him. Swiftly, silently, he made his way through the house and out to the garden. Moving through the deep shadows under the trees, he headed back toward the low gate.
On the far side of the grounds he could see two armed guards moving back toward the house. They walked slowly, as if unaware of any trouble.
Reaching the gate, Klaus glanced back at the house one last time, then hoisted himself up and slid through the gap between gate and barbed wire. He moved quickly along the dark lane to where the motorcycle was concealed in the bushes.
As he kicked the engine over, he heard faint distant sounds of frantic shouting.
They’ve found the bodies.
Klaus gunned the engine and sped away.
He kept to the unlighted streets on the edges of Bora Nafasi until he was clear of the city. When he reached the main road to the coast, he turned toward Port Bandari. If nothing got in his way, he’d have two hours’ fast travel ahead of him. Half-way to the port, he’d find the safe house where he could radio for extraction and hide while he waited.
When the extraction team landed in Nairobi, soft light rain was falling, and the air felt crisp and clean after the soupy humidity of Husuni.
Klaus was bundled into a car and driven to secure quarters, where he spent the next four days undergoing debriefings, medical examinations, and psychiatric assessments. At the end of it, he was given a new set of clothes, a pair of new boots, and a haircut. He felt immense satisfaction in being able to snarl at the barber not to cut more than an inch off the bottom. After four days of being shunted about with no say in the matter, the small moment of reassertion was sweet indeed.
He was signed off by the local Station Chief. “Your contribution has been commendable, Major.”
“The mission failed,” Klaus said bluntly.
“The mission’s not complete yet,” the Station Chief said. “Your work moved us closer to the outcome we want. We may have lost this battle, Major, but we can still win the war. Dan Richardson’s still in place, and we’ll send him some fresh support when there’s an opportunity. They’ll take up where you left off. We’re all just foot-soldiers in this campaign, Major.”
Klaus didn’t reply.
“You won’t have seen any news reports while you were in debriefing,” the Station Chief continued. “There’s fighting in the capital and larger centres across the country. The farther away from Bora Nafasi you get, the less clear it is about who’s fighting whom; the opposition forces are pretty fragmented – as you know, of course. We’ll be wanting your replacement to get more of them working together with the FRA. Right now, it looks like Laurent Kisulu’s holding on to power.” He paused, then added, “The press is reporting that Fabrice Dikembe was murdered by a Westerner, whose body was found at the scene – killed by Dikembe’s bodyguards.”
The Station Chief handed over plane tickets, a passport and a bundle of local currency, then shook Klaus’s hand. “You’ll be collected in half an hour by representatives from Bonn. Two of your own agents, I believe.”
Half an hour later, a car drew up with Z behind the wheel and G in the passenger’s seat. Klaus climbed into the back, and the car pulled out into the traffic, heading for the centre of Nairobi.
“It’s good to see you, sir.” Z glanced into the rear-view mirror, meeting Klaus’s eyes. “We’ve been watching events unfold in Husuni. The fighting’s escalated over the past four days while you were in debriefing.”
Klaus nodded. “It’ll take some time before things settle.” He knew Z wouldn’t expect him to say much.
“News reports are patchy, but they’re saying the airports have remained open. A lot of expats have left the country. There’s mayhem on the streets – armed gangs, looting.”
“The usual, then.”
Looting. I accused Dorian of looting.
Dorian. Did he get out in time?
“Sir?” Z looked concerned.
“You looked preoccupied, sir. Sorry, sir.”
G said, “The people you were working with, sir – did they get out, or are they still there?”
For a few moments, Klaus didn’t answer, then: “Eroica was there. With Bonham, and at least one of his other men.” Dorian. Crazy, reckless fool. “I don’t know if they got out.”
A sunny smile spread over G’s face. “Lord Gloria? But he’s here, in Nairobi! I saw him last night! I went for a drink at a cocktail bar, and he was there. Beautifully dressed – and his hair was perfect.”
Klaus shut out the rest of G’s twittering, relief washing through him. Dorian got out. He’s all right.
After the unpretentious drinking houses he’d become used to in Bora Nafasi, the opulence of Nairobi’s Grand Colonial Hotel felt overwhelming. Not the kind of place Klaus would have chosen for a quiet drink on his own – but he was there to look for someone. He walked into the cocktail bar, scanning the room.
Dorian was sitting alone at the end of the bar, a hefty measure of dark rum untouched in front of him, staring blankly into space.
Klaus approached slowly. What the hell am I going to say?
When Dorian noticed him at last, his blank expression changed to shock, then relief. “You got out.”
“Of course I got out. I’m here, aren’t I?” Klaus sat on the stool next to him, and signalled to the barman. “Beer. Something German.” He returned his focus to Dorian. “I hoped you’d see sense and get out before it started. Did you?”
Klaus saw a shadow of terror and disgust pass across the thief’s face.
“We got what we went for; we left the next day.” Dorian took a slug of rum. “Fighting had already started. It was hideous. But we got out.”
“I told you it was no place for civilians. Things’ll get much worse there before they get better. The whole place’ll be a fucking slaughterhouse for months.”
They sipped their drinks. Klaus noticed that Dorian’s hand shook as he put his glass down.
“Did you get that fucking picture you went for?”
The ghost of a smile passed across Dorian’s lips. “Yes. We did.”
Dorian paused, eyes clouding over again, remembering. “We had to travel across the city afterwards. There was fighting in the streets. Men in uniform and civilians. There were children—” Another pause. “We made it to the airport. An oil exploration company had a chartered flight leaving for Nairobi. I talked them into taking us with them.”
Klaus nodded, relieved that Dorian and his men had escaped the horror, unsure what to say in response.
There was another pause, then Dorian took a deep breath, as if steeling himself to say something.
“Klaus – that night when I came to your house. Did that mean anything?”
For a moment, Klaus didn’t trust himself to speak. The replies that came most readily to mind were no longer the replies he wanted to make. He’d done a lot of thinking on the flight from Husuni, and a lot more since he’d left debriefing. He was sick and tired of the layers of pretence.
“Dorian, that night I believed I had no more than twenty-four hours to live, because I had to do something I thought I wasn’t going to survive. I’d resisted you for years, because I thought my life couldn’t include you. That night— I believed I was a dead man, so there was no reason to deny myself any longer. I wanted one taste before it was all over.”
The look of shock on Dorian’s face made Klaus stop.
“But you’re here. What happened?”
“The man I went to kill was already dead. His bodyguards were dead too.” And van Owen was waiting for me – but Dorian doesn’t need to know that part of the story.
“Christ, Dorian, don’t try to make me spell it out. There’ll always be things I can’t tell you. You’ll just have to get used to that.”
Klaus stopped. He and Dorian stared at each other, registering what Klaus had said.
“What do you mean, Klaus?” Dorian asked in a small, hesitant voice.
Now or never. Go on, von dem Eberbach – this is what you want.
“I’ve stopped pretending, that’s what I mean. I’m not going to lie to myself anymore about who I am, and I’m not going to lie to you. And I think you know what that means.”