Sounding The LAST POST

Excuse me, I have just blogged.

I hate the word BLOG. It sounds something like between a poo and a vomit. Hence, my asking to be excused. Nevertheless, it seemed that in the tedious process, as a writer, of Getting My Name Out There, it would be necessary to smear these things onto the Net. Like mooning. Letting it all hang out. Exposure.

Posting a Blog sounds like pooing in somebody’s letterbox. Or pooping, as the Americans say.

Posting on its own is much better. Reaching out; communicating…

The only thing I could think of to post might be little snippets of my, to me at any rate, interesting life which was driven by the need to write. A compulsion, a necessity even, to tell stories. So I began my blog in April 2012 and this was it.

Was. Yes, I’m afraid so.

Not that nothing exciting is happening in my life; my doe rabbit had three babies, my cabbage seedlings were successfully transplanted, there is a promising buyer for one of my properties that might get me out of the financial poo/poop. Exciting, no?

PJE au revoir

Peter J. Earle – author, JOAT – master of none.

Of course the most exciting event of the century is this devastating virus, and I could write about our heroic medical folk who aren’t heroic just yet as the poo has not yet hit the fan in this vicinity, or the infuriating disregard for safety our village youngsters display when still roaming the streets because their schools are still closed. Under lockdown, I’m hearing the news on the TV that everyone else is. There is nothing I can add to the millions of opinions, news, fake news or tweets being trumpeted over the ether.

So, I’m into my seventh novel, in between moving on to greener pastures, er, cabbages.

Farewell, all ye. Stay safe. A very heartfelt thank you to those of you who have followed my posts and especially those who have left comments. Bless you all.

Posted in Shaping a writer, South Africa, Writing novels | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Short Happy Life of a Review Blog

Shelf1

I was allowed to join a team of reviewers in a section of the Writers’ Workshop, called MEAN STREETS. I offered to review for both self-pub writers and for mainstream. The most prominent to send me ARCs was Penguin Random House, SA. They still did, seven years later, but Mean Streets no longer exists as The Writer’s Workshop’ review site was on an old fashioned website and could not count the hits, as well as other drawbacks and limitations. All of the reviewers, some fifteen or so, fell away leaving me there as the only reviewer.

In consultation with Harry Bingham, who was the prime mover behind Writer’s Workshop, now called Jericho Writers – www.jerichowriters.com, I started my own review site in April 2012, called BOOK POSTMORTEM, (www.bookpostmortem.wordpress.com) naming myself as the lead investigator of the Crime Scene. A few of the Mean Streets reviewers tentatively agreed to write for the new blog, but let me down. Jim Nesbitt, a gritty novelist from the USA joined me with some great reviews of American authors that had grabbed his fancy, as well as some of my own work. It has in turn been a privilege to have reviewed his brilliant series of the noir Texas border country private detective, Ed Earl Birch. amazon.com/author/jimnesbitt

So, I was considering giving up reviews on this website, but then offered other authors in the crimefiction genre to swap reviews with me. Perhaps, in this way we could both benefit from the recognition that reviews help to engender. Sadly, or perhaps happily in the interests of making a decision, none took me up on the offer.

So, decision made. I shall now only make shorter comments on GOODREADS or AMAZON, but concentrate on reviewing for self-published authors who send me eBooks, or freebies I pick up from Prolific Works www.prolificworks.com or similar sites.

My thanks to all who sent me books to review, especially PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE – SA. I hope the positives helped sales, and that the negatives did not too much damage.

For everyone Locked Down, read on, McDuff!

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7945783.Peter_J_Earle

 

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Behind The BARROS PAWNS.

The story is about a group of skydivers lured to Mozambique in 1974, at the time on the edge of independence from Portugal, to be seen by an international journalist as South Africans interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. What we used to call a Commie Plot…

Why skydivers?

VIVITAR DIGITAL CAMERAI had about 60 jumps at the time. I had been a founding member of the Rustenburg Parachuting Club, then joined the Pretoria Parachuting Club where the story starts.

Why Mozambique?

From 1971 until 1974 I had worked as an agricultural research technician, most of that time in Mozambique’s Zambeze Province north of Beira to the Malawi border, in the Zambezi Delta by Helicopter and swamp tractor. From the Shiré River west to Bandar; and east to Murrembala and Mopeia. We mapped from aerial photos to the ground; soils, vegetation, grazing and irrigation potential. Much as Geoff Nourse had done in the story.

What more could a twenty-five year-old with an adventurous spirit want than to head for the wilds of Africa in a Land Rover with a rifle behind the seat? I loved it.

The background towns and villages, for the most part, exist. The “flat-topped mountain” as described could be anywhere in that wild mountainous region between Gorongoza and the mighty Zambezi River.

Moz Crater 3 MapWhat about Sierra Mueda, the extinct volcano where the group is forced to jump into the arms of the waiting Frelimo group, and the journalist? No, not by that name, anyway. But on the aerial photos we were given in 1971 to map part of Tete Province east of Tete Town, lies one such mountain. I have never found a name for it, and we never went there as we were working around Bandar and Lake Lifumba when we were warned by the local folk that if we did not move out, we would be shot by Frelimo.

We moved out, and we finished mapping from the little village of Doa on the Beira-Tete railway line. The one that was frequently mined and blown up. I heard a detonation myself, one day, back then. Being young and stupid, I went to look. I took the train driver for a beer or three. Maybe he was Gomes?

But, with Google Maps – for which thanks! – I have found it; a beautiful round green ring in arid isolated hilly country. There is no village nearby. No running streams. Being a volcano, I dreamed of one day hiking there to look for diamonds! Or even the caves where, in my imagination, the Frelimo cadre lay in wait…

Moz Crater 2I zoomed in. Wonderfully exciting. It was a disappointment, however, but also intriguing, to see the shine of three new tin roofs on the northern lip. Obviously recent. By zoom, I followed the track to get there from a few-huts little village called Namisseche. A very rough and tortuous track indeed, to those three new buildings. What are they doing there? Hunting? Prospecting?

There is a path – and I suspect it is a foot path, or a scrambler motorbike track, and not a four-wheel drive track – leading zig-zagging down into the bowl of the crater. It appears to lead to dark spots in the cliff faces of the several ridges in the crater bottom… Caves?

I wish I had the bucks to go and see! A spot of youthfulness would serve, as well, because it looks rough. I know it’ll be bloody hot, it is the Zambezi valley, after all. And it is malaria country. And tsetse fly country…

What about the characters?

Well, anyone who reads my thriller The TRIBES of HILLBROW will meet elderly Geoff Nourse and Cecile (nee Cradock) McNeil briefly again. It’s thirty-five odd years on, so the then unborn Geoffrey Cradock McNeil is a young man. Dan McNeil and Ryan O’Donnell feature, too, as mercenaries back in the Congo of the sixties… Take a look.

https://www.amazon.com/Peter-J.-Earle/e/B00478NBPC/

GOODREADS: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7945783.Peter_J_Earle

 

 

 

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The BARROS PAWNS – Serial Final Episode #12 Ch. 34-35

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 34-35.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

THIRTY FOUR

Nobody appeared as a result of the firing. The inhabitants of the Chota shanties had no telephones and those further away thought it was the sound of the Army rifle range. Barros radioed his own Police contacts and after half an hour, two Police Land Rovers arrived. Brand radioed his boss to make certain arrangements. Barros agreed to keep quiet about certain embarrassing facts regarding Operation Insurance in exchange for a sum of money to be deposited into a South African bank. Barros himself agreed that the information in the wrong hands would do untold damage to Mozambique. The new truth was that a bunch of criminals had kidnapped him and tried to steal the Dakota to get out of the country. The bodies of Muller, Theunissen and van Rooyen were buried quietly, without ceremony, in Beira. De Souza’s body was flown to South Africa for burial. Bates and McNeil were flown to Salisbury, Rhodesia, where they, in time, recovered from their wounds and injuries. Brand gave Cecile three weeks leave, not by coincidence, aware that he was shortly about to lose an agent. She and Nourse went to Salisbury together.

Pieter Visagie and Rafe Schulman, promising to keep in touch, returned to South Africa with Duvenage and Brand. Rafe told Geoff that he had decided to return to Israel. Pieter said that he thought that he might go along, just for a look, and then see something of Europe…

*****

“I think that Geoffrey is a bum name. Can’t we call him Zachariah Chalmondeley McNeil?”  Dan asked, straight-faced.

“Not on your McNelly.” Cecile laughed. “Geoffrey Cradock McNeil he will be!”

“Yech! That’s the greatest common multiple!” McNeil protested. He was just getting used to the idea of being a father, now that Cecile had discovered that she was pregnant. They were pretending that it would be a boy. “Geoff, old buddy, I’m in shock. Unleash me another tame Lion, will you? Well, for awhile there, I thought that Cradock was an alias, you being a spook and all, but I must say I was relieved when it wasn’t.”

He gestured at the six-pack on the stainless steel bedside table. The hospital rules were against it, of course, but the nurses were a cheerful, down to earth lot and were turning a blind eye. Nourse grinned and did as he had been bidden. He intended to stay around long enough to see his friend well and wed, and then he planned to go off to Europe to check out the skydiving scene there. Dan was to be released the next day, then they would wend their way south.

“What are you getting married for, anyway? Dan, for someone that has been in the mire before, aren’t you being a trifle dumb?”

“Just you belt up, Geoff Nourse. We’ve enough bastards like you and Dan about without making another one.” Cecile shook a stern finger at him. They laughed, the bonds of a life-long friendship growing. They were quiet for awhile remembering, grateful to be alive and thinking of those who had died to make it possible.

“Can’t understand Theo, though.” Geoff shook his head in bewilderment. He would never forget that bloody, bubbling whisper from Theunissen’s lips, as he knelt over the dying man, admitting that he had pushed Ryan O’Donnell over the balcony.

“Good God, Theo! Why?” He had recoiled from the torn body in horror, stunned with disbelief. Theo’s reply came through quite strongly, although they were the last words he ever said.

“Sold to the highest bidder.”

They found a blue armband in his pocket.

“Why didn’t he do what he was supposed to do after the drop on Muambe? He could have cut us down then. He and van Rooyen would have been captured, given the right answers for the observers, finished.”

“We were too spread out, and then it was too late. When we got armed, there was nothing he could do in case one of us survived to shoot him. Christ! When I think about him pushing Ryan!” McNeil exploded bitterly.

Nourse cracked two more cans and handed one to Dan. He was still bewildered. “He and Ryan were pretty close. Went through hell together, you say. I can’t believe it was for the money, Dan. What made him do it?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” McNeil said slowly, his eyes saw nothing of the ward or his companions. “Twice, in the Congo, when things were rough, Theo asked me if I would join the other side if the money was better. I said that once I was bought, I stayed bought and my loyalty along with me. He laughed and said that I wasn’t a true mercenary, then. I said that neither was he, in that case, but he laughed again and said it was because he didn’t have the guts to fight against O’Donnell. Maybe there is a clue there and maybe there isn’t, but Ryan was the better soldier and maybe Theo was afraid of him, envied him. Perhaps all the death that Theo saw had warped his mind, so that, to be what he called a true mercenary, became a sort of obsession. ‘Sold to the highest bidder,’ was what he said, isn’t it? But it wasn’t for the money; he had plenty of that…”

Cecile cleared her throat and squeezed Dan’s hand, trying to shake off the mantle of depression that had settled over them.

“We think that the observer, or one of them, was an Englishman named Alistair, a journalist that Mr Brand and I met in Beira. We’ve found out that he flew to Malawi a couple of days before you made the drop. Herman Bosch, the man you killed in the bush, using the name of Paul Smuts, was on the same flight. Poor Alistair. I rather liked him and they would probably have liquidated him when their plan backfired.”

Then there occurred one of those strange, inexplicable moments when they were, in their minds, meeting for the first time at the skydiving club. They were all comparing the then with the now and how, what had happened, had changed them. Enriched them. Strengthened them.

Simultaneously, they smiled.

 

Machel arrives-head 750526THIRTY FIVE

             “The man who called himself Paul Smuts never intended getting himself mixed up in a firefight. He agreed to going with Wanga, sure, but for him it was the best possible way of retrieving that man, Sanderson, and knew that it was his own responsibility.” General Mucongáve scratched his crutch and continued.

“Remember, I told you they had some scheme to blow up the Army? Well, they met up with the captain from Bandar area that morning, less than an hour before the helicopter flew over, they told me. There was no hope of catching the escaping Sanderson on foot now that they had learned of the South Africans theft of transport from Bandar.  Smuts’ priority was to find himself some transport and the only hope of that was getting himself to Lake Lifumba, where the captain had told him that he might find something. Well, now, I’m sure, as the man ahead of him moved aside, Smuts must have known it was too late, that all his plans were for nothing, that his life was about to end and maybe he was forming a protest as the bullet tore into his throat and ripped out bits of his vertebrae. What does a man feel in that last second? I think he felt nothing; but perhaps his eyes were recording a peaceful picture of leaves scattered across a blue sky like a movie camera left running, and his brain, as the batteries ran down, was regretting, regretting…”

The sun peeped over the hills; the black silhouettes of the M’sasa trees faded to grey, then dark green. There was a nip in the air which was not unpleasant. The sky lightened into a deep, cloudless blue.

Alistair’s clothes hung baggily on him, ragged and filthy. Lack of cigarettes had forced him to give up smoking and Alistair had not been so fit for years. He was resolved to keep it that way. He took a deep lungful of the pure air.

“I beg your pardon, General? You were saying?” He thought for a moment that the general was being poetic or something. Alistair spoke his own brand of Portuguese, adapted from a bit of French and Spanish, but he and the general understood each other well enough, after a month together. His feet were once again on Malawian soil, the first leg of the journey home. He thought the general had been talking about Smuts.

“That way to Blantyre, that way to Chiroma. Take your choice.” The short paunchy man laughed and pointed a stubby finger at the road, ten metres away. “It does not matter which way you go.”

“Thank you, General. I shall remember your kindness.”

They had moved out of the crater as soon as they heard of the deaths of Wanga and Smuts. The Chinese packed up their radios and set off for Malawi, en route for Tanzania where they had an embassy. The general was firm in his refusal to let the Chinese take Alistair with them. He moved everything to the rim and waited. Two days later, two Portuguese Army helicopters landed, troops scouted around, found nothing, and left.

The general moved to another camp in the west, knowing that they could be back without warning. Alistair moved with them from one camp to another, hearing the battle reports as they came in. More mines and ammunition arrived. They blew up the rails five times, once derailing a train; they mined three vehicles, one a tractor and trailer on which three civilians were killed; they murdered a white storekeeper and burned the store after looting it. Once a man was killed; another time, some were wounded. They carried little in the way of medical supplies. They applied herb dressings which seldom did any good. Wounds usually turned gangrenous. If a man could not get to the hospital in Mutarara, he died on the way. Alistair found himself acting as orderly with his knowledge of first aid, but he could do little. There was seldom enough food. Now and then they shot an antelope or appropriated maize or millet or cassava from the locals, but the general made sure that Alistair never went hungry. Guiltily, he insisted he was full, long before he was.

The general often spoke to Alistair about what they were doing. He was a pompous, often cruel, little man, but he was no fool and he was a good commander. Alistair sometimes contemplated escape, but the general ensured that the opportunity never arose. Then three days ago, the general had announced that he was going to let him go.

“Believe me; I would kill you without hesitation, if I thought it would bring freedom to Mozambique. But it will not. You are a man who uses words and I believe that you came here with some sympathy for our cause. Perhaps what you have seen with me these last weeks has made you change your mind. Sometimes we have killed innocent people, our own people. But, perhaps they are not so innocent or they would be here in the bush, fighting with us. You know that you were tricked into coming here to see South Africans meddling in our affairs, see these men forced to jump over my camp at Muambe, that we were expecting them? Too clever, too complicated, a Chinese trick. We need the Chinese arms, the Russian arms, but they will take their payment later. They will try to take the place of the Portuguese and it will be worse. Worse! When we have our freedom, Mozambique will be socialist, but we will have to go on fighting, or we will drown. It is not South Africans I am afraid of, it is our friends and allies… Go home, Mr. Alistair, and, with your pen, see if you can stop East and West playing football with Mozambique.”

Five minutes later, they heard the sound of a truck. The general moved back into the bush. Alistair stepped into the road and began to wave.

 

*****

 

Moz-Socialost State750625On 7th September, 1974, representatives of the Portuguese Government and Frelimo met in Lusaka, Zambia, to sign the Acordo de Lusaka. The transitional period to independence had begun. Portuguese troops were sent home in ever increasing numbers, exiles returned, political prisoners were released. The dream of the People’s Republic of Mozambique became a reality on 25th June, 1975, the first fully committed black socialist state in Southern Africa. But, already, in May, a Russian delegation had been to discuss the development of the Lourenço Marques, soon to be Maputo, port facilities…

The End.

Moz -US concern

THE BARROS PAWNS: Author’s Note

This book in its original form was written soon after the happenings herein related. I see no reason for apologising for the lack of political correctitude, feeling that it is an historical flavour of the times.

To the best of my knowledge there was no such plan as “Operation Insurance”, nor were any South Africans or Rhodesians involved in the struggle directly against the Frénte de Liberteçao de Moçambique (Frelimo).  I once heard a rumour that a wealthy Portuguese businessman was recruiting troops for his own army to fight Frelimo but I never found any proof to substantiate this.  Thus the characters of this story are mostly from my own imagination and have little relation to any real person, living or dead, unless with great respect and affection.  However, the background and setting are authentic and one or two real heads of state etc have been mentioned.

If you enjoyed this serial, FREE for Lockdown due to the Covid-19 threat to all of us, please let me know. Stay safe, and RIP those who will sadly not make it through this terrible time. Thank you to those who fought through it all to save the lives of others. Bless you.

 

 

Posted in Backgrounds, Exploring Africa, Free Serial, Shaping a writer, Writing novels | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The BARROS PAWNS – Serial Episode #11 Ch. 31-33

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 31-33.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

THIRTY ONE

Antonio Pires, late of Gondonga Commando, turned his Landrover off the river track and up another that wound through the trees the short distance to Lake Lifumba. He hunched his thick body forward to let the breeze from the open window dry and cool the wet rag that was the shirt on his back.

LakeLifumba

Lake Lifumba, Mozambique.

He had had the roof over his head modified to canvas, stretched onto a light tube frame; if he hit a mine, he had a better chance of survival with a roof that would give way as his body was hurled upwards. He’d been mined before, after he had found his store in ashes and his wife dead. It was not very far from where he was at the moment; going to fetch the fish from his brother-in-law’s little netting business on the lake. The nets were laid by dug-out and hauled in by tractor. But the fish were fewer and smaller than they ever had been. After Kariba dam in Rhodesia and now Cabora Bassa dam in Mozambique were built, the Zambezi no longer flooded the lake, bringing new stocks of fish. The natural reproduction in the lake was not enough. At one time there had been as many as eight commercial fishing companies in operation there; but, they dwindled until now there remained just the two. Frelimo in the area were a contributing factor, but thus far bribes and fish for food had kept them in business. However, it did not stop them from mining the roads from time to time to discourage the Army from coming along. A tractor with a trailer-load of women and children had been blown up on the Bandar road back in ’71. Now, Pires’ brother-in-law was throwing in the towel. In Pires’ opinion, he should have done it long ago. As he had told Geoff, there was better fishing to be done in the blind rivers of the Zambezi delta, although it still needed a marsh buggy to get in there. Pires knew a man operating out of Morromeu who took his tractor by barge through the delta branch channels to an island in the higher lying dune country near the sea. Pires knew that he was doing well, and there were only the worst mosquitoes in the world, but no Frelimo…

He had returned to his Mutarara farm after the last battle, at the flat-topped hill, because of the wound in his arm, but it had almost healed, now. He got on well with the Sena people, he knew their ways, but, like most of the third and fourth generation settlers, he doubted their ability to successfully run their own country and he was too frightened of being tossed out of the country and losing what possessions he had to take the chance of finding out. He ruled those who worked his cotton fields with an iron hand, but he was generous and fed them well. He had needed a foreman to run the place when he was away with his fingers in other pies and when Francisco Mwaga said he was free, he snapped him up. They had fought Frelimo together and the South African, Nourse, whom he had bumped into from time to time, had spoken highly of him. Sometimes, on short trips, Pires took the cheerful, squat, powerful black man with him. Francisco’s wound, too, had almost healed.

Pires drove with one wheel on the verge, when the vegetation at the side of the track permitted; for any mines planted would be in the wheel ruts. Mwaga sat on the passenger side holding Pires double-barrelled twelve-bore and the Brno .30-08 between his legs, sweating. He hated these trips to Lifumba. He thanked God that they were few and far between. He always got a cold feeling in his backside and could feel his testicles attempting to climb back inside his body. He knew that his employer did not care whether they hit a landmine or not. He also knew that, for all his kindness, it amused Pires to make him sweat a little.

“Francisco, my friend, if it is written in God’s book that you will die today,” he would say, “you can stay in bed at home, but He will still find a way to kill you!” It was alright for him, he had no more wife, no children, but what would little Alfonso do without a father? He thought of his own childhood. As he had told Boss Geoff, his father disappeared, some said with another woman, from their home in Marandellas, Rhodesia. The struggle was too much for his mother without family help, so she returned to her parents in Mozambique with her ten-year old boy. In two years, she was dead and it was natural that he blamed his father. When he grew up, Francisco had wished to return to Rhodesia, but no-one would help him get a permit. As things got worse in the country – floods, famine and Frelimo – he dreamed more and more of going back to Rhodesia, or to Africa do Sul, of which Boss Geoff had told him so much.

“What’s this, now?” Pires’ harsh cry ripped him back to the present. A ragged scarecrow in tattered uniform was waving them down. A white man! They had just reached the lake’s edge by the huge fig trees. “Son of a whore! It is Senhor Nourse!”

“Boss Geoff!”

“Francisco! What the hell are you doing here?” Nourse panted, gasping for breath. “Bom dia, Antonio, como estas?” He leaned with relief against Pires’ door. He had run a good part of the way after he and McNeil had helped the two crippled men into cover near the Bandar track. “Antonio, I need your help. I have three friends, wounded, on the Bandar road. I must get them to Mutarara. There are plenty Frelimo in the area, as you must know, so, if you’ll lend me your Landrover…”

“I len’ you farken nutting! “Pires broke into his own brand of English. “I drive; you sit on farken back with gun, okay?” He waved to Mwaga and snapped in Sena, “Take the shotgun and look after us.” Already he was turning the vehicle, the fish forgotten. Nourse vaulted in. What luck, meeting up with Pires. He had visualised having to borrow a tractor and trailer at gunpoint from one of the mulattos that ran the netting. They would not willingly drive on the Bandar road.

*****

          Sand spurted from Pires’ tyres as he pulled away. He yelled questions at Nourse as they sped along back to the junction in the tracks and then swung west. Nourse answered as best he could without going into detail about Sanderson. He told of their forced drop on Frelimo headquarters and their escape. Then he was too concerned about possible attack to talk further as they sped along mostly open grasslands with stands of Borassus palm. Pires managed to drive parallel to the track, most of the time.

Brand had identified the white man who had been killed in the Frelimo attack. He had seen him in Beira and done a check with his department. He had supposedly been in the textile business with a Chinese in Lourenço Marques. He called himself Paul Smuts, but he had fled South Africa at the time of the Durban riots and his real name was Herman Bosch. The question was: why had he been here in the bush with a band of Frelimo? His Chinese connections, their link to van Rooyen, both of their arrivals here so close to the Frelimo base at Serra Muambe, now began to make a clearer picture.  Bosch had taken to the bush in a desperate bid to either capture van Rooyen or to kill him.

“So, it’s over, then,” Bates had said from his mopane pole stretcher, “as long as we can keep van Rooyen out of the hands of the Chinese. They will still be after him, but, with Bosch dead, they will not be able to reorganise in time. He has no other market, now.”

“I’m not so sure,” Brand had said, worriedly. The whole operation had been chaos. There had been no point at which he had felt in control. He had been three steps behind, the whole way. He had not, until now, told either Nourse or McNeil the real reason why they still had to find van Rooyen, the ex-communications expert. It was still top priority. If he was to retain their help, he had decided that he might have to give them a bit more detail, now that Bates and he were wounded and De Souza was dead.

The short trip was uneventful, Nourse thanked God. No Frelimo, no mines. Geoff guided Pires to where the South Africans were waiting. Bates was asleep on his stretcher with several broken ribs and suspected back damage and a damaged hand from the crash. They loaded the stretcher gently in the bed of the truck. Nourse, Mwaga and McNeil sat in the back with him and Brand joined Pires in the front. They turned and headed down river, past Ancuaze, another trading post, towards Zamira, where Pires’ brother-in-law had his own store. In a low voice, McNeil told Nourse what Brand had told him about Operation Insurance and why they still had to find van Rooyen. He said that Brand was still afraid that van Rooyen would still try to set off these mines. Who would gain by the effect of putting all military and police installations out of commission, beside Frelimo and the Communists?

“Looters, criminals!” Nourse could see the chaos in his mind. “Remember Muller talking about raiding museums, jewellers and banks?”

McNeil nodded. They’d all chatted about the possibilities of such raids when they were cooped up in the hotel. It had helped to pass the time. He remembered, now, that it had been Muller who had set the discussion in motion.

“No,” he said doubtfully, “I personally think that van Rooyen will simply want to get out of the country. I don’t think the others, except Muller, would want to be involved in such a caper; they would want to go home.”

At Zamira, Pires stopped at his brother-in-law’s store. Here, the road joined that which linked to the village of Doa on the Tete-Mutarara railway line. They wolfed down a hurried meal prepared by Senhora Alves, then McNeil and Nourse changed into civilian clothes from Senhor Alves shelves. Yes, said the Alves to Brand’s question, through Geoff; they had heard a vehicle pass by during the night It had not stopped. Francisco, saying a swift farewell, was left behind when they hit the road again. Nourse hugged his friend and promised to keep in touch.

Mutarara consisted of a series of installations and villages strung along the Zambezi. First, there was the aerodrome, a minor Air Force base, at that time with a contingent of Air Force personnel and sometimes some small planes, mostly used for spotting and recce work. Beyond it lay Mutatara Nova, the new town, a few houses, a pension, a restaurant, the railway station and goods yard, and the Railway Club. Then a two- kilometre gap where the road and line is pushed up against the river by a row of red conglomerate hills, then one entered Dona Ana, where the line to Tete is joined by the line to Malawi and crosses the Zambezi on a two kilometre steel arched bridge. Beyond Dona Ana, there was Mutarara Velho, the old town. Here was the Administrative section, the hospital run by a single male nurse, and the Army Barracks.

CessnaPires swung in at the Aerodrome, pulling up at the guard post. He pointed at the Barros Cessna 206 on the strip and told the soldier that they were expected. The guard stuck his cigarette back in his mouth and waved them in. Pires headed straight onto the hard-standing and stopped by the six-seater. Duvenage trotted over from where he had been chatting to some Air Force men. Brand introduced the agent to the two friends. It was just after one o’clock; siesta time. The tarmac threw up a vicious glare. It was the only piece of tarmac for hundreds of kilometres; all the roads were sand or metalled. The buildings were covered with dust; even the newly arrived Cessna already had a film on it.

Brand had a last word with Bates. It was he who must report the loss of the Bell, deal with the paperwork and Police statements with a reasonable cover story that would satisfy but give nothing away. Pires was to take Bates to the hospital and agreed to bring De Souza’s body and any loose kit back to Mutarara as soon as he could. He would have to also make such relative supportive statements to the authorities as were required. Geoff shook hands with Pires and asked him, for Brand, to say as little as possible about anything he had overheard. The grizzled Portuguese grinned.

“I say farken nutting, my friend. Hey, sometime you come stay my house, okay? We go hunt big farken boofalow, Sim?”

“Okay, Antonio, sure thing. Look after yourself!” Geoff grinned back as he gathered the bundles that were the R3s wrapped in their discarded uniforms and newspaper and clambered aboard. The plane lifted and circled the dusty little town. They could see Pires’ Landrover heading a spear of dust as it headed towards the hospital. Below them lay the railway bridge ending at the drab little village of Sena, one of the first inland settlements of Southern Africa. Soon it was lost to view as they followed the brown ribbon of the Zambezi. They saw several dugouts on it and at the junction of the Shiré River, which flows south from Lake Malawi, a paddle steamer, carrying a deck cargo of sacks of grain.

“My God!” Brand gaped at it, “Just what century is this?”

“I know, I couldn’t believe it, myself, when I saw it on the way up.” Duvenage said. Geoff told them that there were still a couple of them that plied the Zambezi between Morromeu and Luabo and also up the Shiré.

Brand told the agent that Geoff had been working in the area for three years and knew it well. He asked Duvenage what the situation had been when he left. Geoff and Dan were slumped in their seats, trying to keep awake. McNeil’s shoulder had greatly improved with treatment but still ached.

“Quiet. Cradock has everything under control.” That made Dan pay attention. “Manuela Barros knows that you were shot down and she might have tried something while I am away, so we locked her in a store room.” Then a look of alarm crossed his face. “I wonder, you don’t think something could happen if van Rooyen arrives there?”

“Like what? Why would they go there? They were escaping from there, weren’t they?” Brand asked, but he was suddenly worried. McNeil opened his eyes.

“Loot Beira.” He told them what he and Geoff had discussed.

“It’s no more than a remote possibility,” Brand fumbled for his pipe and Duvenage rolled his eyes at the thought of that awful cloud in the cabin. “Seems most unlikely. But let’s look at it. Would the men that are with him go for it? Would you, if van Rooyen had suggested it? He would need all the armed men he could get his hands on and a plane to fly them out of the country with the loot.”

“In the Congo,” Dan said, “I admit I helped to blow a couple of safes and took whatever came my way. But this involves the deaths of hundred, maybe thousands of people to start with. I would not take him seriously. We’re not sure who is with him. We think that the only one that didn’t make it away from the mountain besides Blair was Jan de Groot, but we can’t be sure. Let’s assume there’s Theo Theunissen; I don’t think he’d go for it, he’s had all the excitement he needs for a lifetime and I’ve never heard him express a desire to be mega rich. He makes a good living with his gym. Helmut Muller, what do you think, Geoff? He might say yes to a thing like that; a pretty ruthless bastard, I’d guess. Now, Rafe Schulman, no, he wouldn’t touch it. A tough nut, but no gangster. Same goes for Piet Visagie. He may talk about it, but he is a softy, he would not go for the killing. Only a bunch of madmen or hardened criminals would try it.”

Staring at him curiously, Brand thought that he could rule out this hypothesis. But the question remained; what would van Rooyen do? Where would he go? He could catch a plane in Beira, or a train to Rhodesia or hire a car and drive to Malawi or Zambia or go north to Tanzania. We’ve lost him, he thought. Let’s hope the Chinese have as well.

Using the reverse of the route that he had used to get to Mutarara, Duvenage swung away from the Zambezi and in twenty minutes, he was coming down to the strip at the edge of the Mungari River. Nothing moved.

“Good God!” Duvenage exploded, “the Dakota’s gone!”

Nourse, without being told, ripped open the bundle of firearms. Each one of them was tense with premonition. The Cessna’s wheels touched, a slight bounce, and then they were down, taxiing towards the bungalows. Still nothing moved. It was an ordinary hot day. A slight breeze stirred the dense forest; it seemed to galvanize them to action. Brand, with his wounded leg, stayed with the plane, his knuckles white as he gripped the R3 to cover them. Duvenage started a zigzag run towards the buildings, McNeil and Nourse backed him up on either side. At a glance they could see that the store room door where Manuela had been kept was wide open. The main doors, on the veranda, were, on the other hand closed. Stuck to one was a note. What Duvenage could see of it was in Afrikaans. McNeil had gone one side of the building, Nourse the other. Duvenage reached for the door handle to release the note.

There was a groan from the palm tree where Ribeiro had died. Duvenage whipped around, sweating.

“Boss…” It was still more of a groan than a call. The seamed, bloody, black head with the grizzled, grey peppercorn hair moved slightly, just above the veranda floor. “Boss…” the toothless mouth formed, again. Duvenage shouted for the other two, keeping his weapon trained on the old man and his eyes flickering about the other bungalows. Geoff came up behind the hurt man.

Madala!” He knelt at his side and put his arm around the thin shoulders. The old one had been badly beaten up. His teeth, such as they had been, had been smashed out of his jaw, which appeared to be broken. One arm was twisted at an unnatural angle. Geoff ran his hands over the thin body – some ribs were dented where they should have bulged. The old man hacked and bloody foam appeared from his messy mouth, pink on the purple-brown of the old caked blood. Geoff was angry, and now, scared. This thing was not yet over.

“Ask him if there is anyone else still here.” Duvenage was still watching for movement. The old man got that and minimally shook his head.

“Gone…” he breathed, “Doors…Boss…not open…doors…all got skellum…kill you…”

“Something to do with the doors -” Geoff tried Sena which was stupid as the old man was a Rhodesian and understood English better. He switched to Fanagalo. “What devil is in the doors?”

“…like iron…apple…bang…”

“Doors must be booby-trapped.” Nourse saw Duvenage shiver at how close he had been to opening that front door. “Madala, who did this to you?”

“Miss…Manuela…missus try…stop…she hit missus…too much…” His voice was a slushy croak. Geoff leaned closer; “Taking guns…radio machines…to aero…plane…all…people…fly…” The last word was a long sigh. How to ask him who went as prisoners and who as captors? Who let Manuela free? Nourse shook him ever so gently.

Madala?” There was no response. He felt for a pulse on the scrawny neck.  Nothing. He was unaware of the tears running down his own cheeks. He got to his feet, unable to see anything, blinking. When he had recovered, he followed Duvenage, who had broken a window and got inside. Dan managed to join them without too much strain on his shoulder.

“Shit, I don’t like that!” McNeil said, looking at the booby-trap from the back, a grenade fixed so that the man opening it would have been blown to kingdom come.

“Oh, really,” said Duvenage, sarcastically, “Well, I’m sure I -”

“No, not that. It is who put it there, it is like a signature.” McNeil looked grey under his tan. The other two men looked at him in puzzlement. “Theo Theunissen. Only one man I know sets a door booby like that. And that’s Theo. Besides, who else knows how to set one at all?”

“Maybe Sanderson forced him to?” Nourse said, but there was not much conviction in his tone. He watched as Dan carefully dismantled it.

“You stay here or you’ll blow yourself up. Duvenage and I’ll look the place over.” The note fluttered to the floor as he opened the door, from whence Duvenage retrieved it.

All I want to do now is escape. I have no intention of trying to sell or use the information that I have of Operation Insurance or any other classified information in my possession. I made a mistake trying to deal with the Communists. I now realise that I cannot betray my country. However, I must ask you to stay here for 48 hours to give me a chance to get away, or I will be forced to execute Cradock and other hostages. Keep away from me and they will live. Signed:  P.A.vR.

Duvenage pocketed it for his chief’s perusal. Dan shuddered. Geoff guessed that Cecile had been in his thoughts most of the while, but from the time that the Cessna had landed until he had heard of Manuela beating up ‘another missus’ he had staved off the fear, but now a feeling of bilious dread spread through his guts. His fists were clenched and he spat out an expletive through gritted teeth. Geoff darted a look at him and winced in sympathy.

McNeil turned abruptly and followed Duvenage through the bungalow. Nourse stepped onto the smooth, green polished concrete surface of the stoop. Some of that poor old man’s work, this polishing, he thought idly as his eyes searched the surroundings for any suspicious movement. There was a path of dusty footprints across the polish to the edge of the veranda where the old man’s body lay in the palms. There was a trail to the steps in front, to the table and chairs on the other side, then their own prints to the window where they had entered, but his attention was drawn to some scratch marks in the wax polish on the floor below the window. He stood with his back to the wall, looking down at them. They were near a smear and a few drops of dried blood. They were definitely letters, he saw, now, probably scratched with a fingernail. A footprint blotted the middle of the last word; there were two or three letters missing.

vR 2 DET OP INS IMM LOOT BEIRA FROM C—A

“Duvenage!”

“What’s wrong?” The agent was there within seconds, McNeil at his heels.

“Take a look at this!” Geoff indicated. Duvenage studied it.

At length, he said, “I make it van Rooyen to detonate Operation Insurance immediately. He intends to loot Beira from… what? Could this be a place? Beginning with C, ending with A and two, no three letters missing. Obliterated by our own bloody careless feet!” He got down on his knees. “Crofa? Chofa?” He raised his eyebrows at Nourse. “Ring any bells? In Beira, near Beira?”

Geoff racked his brains, then he was suddenly sure. “Yes! It must be Chota! It’s a sand dune relic across the flats, between the airport and the city. Lined with palm trees, it’s got a landing strip on it the skydivers use, and their drop zone! It’s flooded, part of the year but should be dry by now. It hasn’t rained for awhile. They always call it the Chota; Cecile must have heard them talking about it. They can land the Dak there, if they inform Manga Airport beforehand…”

So, their idle speculation had been dead on the nail. Duvenage nodded slowly, then he turned to Dan. He pointed.

“Check out those buildings for any clue to confirm this or help us. Nourse, look over the workshops and store rooms. Quick. Come to the plane when you have done it. I’ll talk to the Chief in the meanwhile.”

 

THIRTY TWO

Dan felt sick with fear; it twisted his guts, it seeped through his system like a poison, its acid ate away at his nerves. Nourse watched his friend from the corner of his eye with sympathy. There was nothing he could say to help; his own nerves were on edge. What they were going to do was tantamount to suicide, but where Geoff’s fear was for himself, he knew Dan’s agony was for Cecile. McNeil had had a verbal fight with Brand when the latter had said that there was nothing for it but to go to Beira and tackle van Rooyen, Theunissen and their mob head on. They had to assume that the South Africans had, like it or not, thrown their lot in with the raid. Manuela, too, must be with them. It would be she who knew of the Chota. It would be Rafe Schulman who would, willingly or otherwise, be piloting the Dakota. It had been Theo who had set the booby-traps from supplies meant for Barros’ army; he could easily have pretended to set them and not done so – van Rooyen would not have been the wiser. So Theo was in it up to the hilt. Theo Theunissen…something was nagging Geoff about that man.

It was Brand’s idea to drop a box of primed grenades onto the Dakota from the Cessna, if they could get there on time, then land and attack. This roused Dan to fury.

“You’re not risking that girl’s life! You can’t just bloody murder her to get at van Rooyen. What about Rosa and Barros? You fuckin’ well can’t -”

“My dear McNeil, consider what would happen if the mines go off! How many people would die then? Hundreds, maybe thousands? And you don’t think they’ll let any of the innocent live when they make their getaway? I hate to say this, but I’m surprised they have let them live this long. It is not as if they actually need hostages at this juncture. And when it gets out who did it? And who put the mines in place in the first instance? Cecile Cradock is a very competent agent and she’ll get herself out of this mess if it is humanly possible.”

Just miserable words, you bastard, thought Geoff; Brand can’t even convince himself, never mind Dan. The poor bugger isn’t only in love with the girl; he is hurt and in need of sleep. It was going to be very nasty indeed, but without himself and Dan, there was no chance at all.

“I’ll have to get Duvenage to ram the Dakota, if it is still there.” Brand said, not very convincingly, it seemed to Geoff.

The Cessna droned on at fifteen hundred metres above the ground. The back seats and a door had been swiftly removed by Duvenage while the two skydivers had adjusted and donned two parachutes they had found at the camp that had probably belonged to Rosa and Manuela. It had been Geoff Nourse’s idea, when he saw them. If the Dak was on the Chota, they could drop on it with more chance of surprise than if the Cessna landed immediately. Their discussion was mostly conjecture. Cecile had said “immediate”. How soon could van Rooyen get organised on arrival? What would be the ideal time? What organisation would be necessary? Surely they would land at Manga Airport first to refuel? Brand reckoned that, for an expert like van Rooyen, the radios taken from the Barros camp could be set up in sequence in half an hour. In the meantime, they would have to organise transport to take them from the Chota or the airport to Beira and back with their booty to load onto the Dak. The Barros organisation would be able to take care of all that as Barros himself was there to give the order. They had about four hours start on Brand and perhaps did not yet know that Brand was on to them. However, it was still possible that when the Cessna arrived, Beira would already be in flames…

Brand said he might get some help from the Portuguese, but it was unlikely. Indeed, the man who was Brand’s superior had been informed and would get onto his opposite number in Lourenço Marques, who would not believe anything he heard until it was too late. He could not be told the whole truth, anyway, and had been notoriously unhelpful in the past.

It was going to be difficult enough getting out of it diplomatically, either, even if they were in time, when they had the police descending on them for attacking a Portuguese plane with automatic weapons and grenades in the middle of Beira. However, in the unlikely event of their success, they would have averted a tragedy. Otherwise, there would be no Police, either and no Beira. Perhaps van Rooyen was going to go the whole hog and detonate the whole country?

Four pairs of anxious eyes scanned the horizon towards the south, praying not to see smoke.

*****

 Duvenage gave a false registration as he reported their approach to Manga. He said he would circle Beira for the view and gave the altitude. There was some confusion as to where he had taken off, but no panic. There was no point in getting the radar operator excited and scrambling the Air Force because of an unidentified blip. It gave them hope that Manga even replied as it meant that the airport still existed. There were no columns of smoke either.

The wind tugged at Geoff Nourse’s cheek, bending his nose, as he thrust his head out of the doorway into the slipstream. He blinked the moisture from his eyes as the wind found its way under his goggles. Below was a miniature Beira; the sea was just under the Cessna’s tail, to the left sprawled the central part of the city, straddling the Chiveve on whose muddy banks lay the golf course. Ahead, lay the swampy grassland through which a couple of raised roads meandered to Manga Airport and the Air Force base. Across the swampy ground lay several remnant sand dunes, lined with coconut palms and shanties. This is higher ground and, where they run in the right direction, roads use their length and safety from flooding. Such is the Chota, lying directly ahead, now, nearly five thousand metres below, a tiny, mottled ribbon, with the grass landing strip discernable on the nearer side. Geoff could just make out the silver cross of the Dak, half concealed by the palms.

“She’s there!” he shouted in relief, his voice all but whipped away by the wind. Duvenage cut the power down slowly so that it would not attract the attention of those used to listening to the sound of aircraft engines. There was no wind; they would go out beyond the target without the benefit of a full throttle-back.

Geoff saw Dan trying to ease the pressure of the harness on his wound and saw him wince. His own stomach churned; he thought that his bowel might let go at any moment. He had a thousand jumps to his credit, but there had never been a jump as vital as this one. He gave Dan a sickly grin. Dan was pale and strained, but he mustered a smile. Geoff turned back to the hole where the door had been. McNeil saw him push one leg out into the wind, watched it wander as it sought the step. One hand stretched up the strut as he took his body out of the doorway. Duvenhage trimmed to compensate for the drag. Dan drew his feet up under him, tensing, and followed Geoff half out, careful not to dislodge Geoff’s hold.

“Remember, we’ll land a minute before you to keep their attention off you,” shouted Brand. “Get the radios out of commission before anything else! Good luck!” It was just nerves; they had been over it all three times and it was still just a snowball’s hope in hell.

With a last elaborate wink at McNeil, Nourse hurled himself into space. Dan was so close behind that Nourse’s boots brushed his chest. The two bodies rocked a little until they picked up speed, then stabilized in the frog position. McNeil closed up tighter to accelerate enough to join Geoff’s level and they flew side by side, snatching glances to keep station, but mostly, their eyes were pinned on the Dakota; hearts hammering, adrenalin sodden. A quick look told them that the Cessna was rapidly losing height towards Manga Airport as if to land there.

The borrowed altimeter on Geoff’s wrist dropped through seven hundred metres and its red line that warned the skydiver to go for his ripcord, but he went on down. Both men often went without the instrument normally; they had the experience to judge. But this was no ordinary jump.

Six, five, four hundred; the survival organism was screaming, oh, Christ, we’re creaming in! Geoff Nourse tore the handle from its pocket, not caring that they had agreed upon three hundred, blood thundering in his temples as he felt the ground-rush suck at him, panicking, screaming, too low, too late, we’re dead, oh, sweet Jesus!

The twin explosions of their simultaneously opening chutes sounded like the crack of doomsday and felt like the welcoming gong at the gates of paradise. Geoff found that he hardly had time to snatch the pistol from his pocket and correct the veering of his canopy when his boots hit the aluminium of the fuselage. He sat down to keep his balance and began to slide before he could stop himself.

A group of urchins that had been gawping at the Dakota began to run to the nearest shanty amongst the palms. Dan landed twenty metres from the tail, dropped to a crouch and slipped his capewells; he was fumbling for his pistol as a pair of legs appeared on the ladder from the rear door of the Dakota on the far side. Someone in the cockpit turned their face towards him. The Cessna was down, racing over the short grass towards them.

Geoff’s lines bent over the aerial, the canopy settled on the far side of the fuselage, arresting his slide, hanging him between two windows of the cabin, just forward of the door.

A lorry came around the nearest shanty. The afternoon sun made a blaze on the windscreen; Dan McNeil could not see the occupants, but both doors were opening and there was a blur of weapons as he began his dash towards the plane. He ducked under its belly and kept the tail wheel between himself and the truck. People were shouting. Weapons opened fire.

 

THIRTY THREE

Despite the apprehension as they landed at Manga Airport, Beira, with Manuela talking to the tower to people who knew her voice, there were no problems refuelling. Rafe was ordered to stay at the controls while Manuela dealt with the ground staff and signed for the fuel. The Dakota then taxied over to the Barros hanger where Manuela commandeered a four ton Bedford from her father’s vehicle pool. Now, dressed in civvies, with Theunissen, Muller, Visagie and Reis on board the truck, the latter guided them to the Chota. It was so close to the main airport that they arrived just as Rafe touched the Dakota down rather bumpily on the grass strip.

Cecile, together with Barros and Rosa, were tied to the ring-bolts in the main cabin. Whenever they tried to talk to each other, they were told to shut up by Manuela. Van Rooyen sat at the radios and began to input the complicated series of firing codes that would detonate the explosives in the Beira area. Theunissen had a last minute meeting with Manuela and van Rooyen to confirm their timing, then as he returned to the truck and they set off back towards the main road to Beira to take up position near the museum and Beira’s three main jewellery stores. Pieter Visagie knew that he had lost his last chance to make some sort of desperate plan with Rafe to escape their involvement with this murderously insane scheme. He realised that each in his own way must try to do whatever they could, but it seemed that Theunissen and Muller did not altogether trust either of them and presented no opportunities. Then, as they turned onto the tarred road to the city, the Barros Cessna dropped out of the sky just above of their heads.

“Fuck!” exploded Helmut, “That’s trouble!”

“Turn, Piet, turn! Get back to the Dak.” Theunissen snatched one of the rifles from under the blanket on the cab floor and Muller followed suit. Pieter u-turned the truck across the path of a black-and-green taxi that went off the road in a cloud of dust to avoid him. He gunned the motor and they shot back down the Chota track.

Dak for blog In the cockpit of the Dakota, Manuela had immediately recognised her father’s Cessna. She cursed, tugging Cecile’s pistol from the pocket of her leather flying jacket and yelling to van Rooyen who was still working on his precious radios. Five minutes would have seen them ready, synchronised, four different frequencies simultaneously ready to unlock, arm and fire the radio detonators of four tons of high explosive. In forty-one minutes the murderous signals would have been sent out. She screamed into the walkie-talkie in her hand to Theo in the truck to come back.

“Here’s the Cessna, it must be that bitch’s security friends!”

“Oh, God!” van Rooyen sprang to the port to look, grabbing up his G3. There was a loud report like ripping material overhead.

“Parachutes!” Manuela knew the sound, her eyes were wide; she dithered with indecision, then she screamed at van Rooyen, “Detonate the mines, now!”

Distracted, now, van Rooyen stared at her dumbly, shaking his head. “They’re not ready -”

“I don’t care!” Manuela yelled, spittle spraying from her mouth. “Blow them!” Cecile guessed that she had intended to force van Rooyen to detonate all the rest when he had set off the Beira section, then her job would have been done. She had no interest in gold and jewels. She aimed the Beretta at his head. “Blow them, or I’ll kill you!”

Van Rooyen slowly sat down. Cecile saw that he knew then that he was a fraction of a millimetre from death. He let the G3 drop to the floor and his hands reached reluctantly for the dials, again. He switched on; probably seeing in his mind’s eye the teeming barracks, laughing squaddies; officers, saying goodnight to their secretaries; guards being changed at ammunition dumps – then the shattering roar, the heaving ground, the splintering walls, searing flames, screams, the blood…

Probably, she thought, in horror, because van Rooyen slowly smiled a wolfish smile, his tongue appearing briefly.

There was a thump on the fuselage; the Dakota rocked. Manuela ran down the aisle to the rear door and stepped onto the ladder. With relief, she saw that the truck had turned and was heading back. The Cessna was fifty metres away, moving fast towards them. A man where the door had been was leaning out with a rifle in one hand. Next to her, something moved. She turned.

Two metres away from her, Geoff hung in his harness. His fingers were on the release capewells, but the pistol loaned by Duvenage hampered him. For a long second, they looked at each other from sweating, desperate faces – there was no time for the memories. He knew it was too late to bring the 9mm to bear, but even as he tried, her finger tightened on her trigger.

The barrel that he was looking down twisted suddenly and the shot slammed against his helmet, whacking his head back against the aluminium. Dazed, he saw her fall, her ankles through the ladder where McNeil had grabbed them. Manuela’s head and shoulders hit the ground, the pistol jarred from her hand. She kicked free and began to crawl after the weapon.

The truck slewed as Piet yanked the wheel hard over, but it skidded and did not tip as he had desperately hoped. The cab doors exploded open as Theunissen leaped out, firing.

McNeil threw himself around the ladder just as Theunissen opened fire on him, the full metal jackets tearing through the pressed metal. Something tugged at his hip. Muller opened up on the Cessna while Brand returned fire, half obscured by the tail wheel of the Dakota.

Piet Visagie was sobbing, his eyes wild. He shot Muller in the back at point blank range. Theo turned to look for his men and saw Muller jerk like a rag doll and sprawl on the grass; saw Piet’s weapon swing towards him, heard the sobbing, and felt the bullets tear into his chest. He staggered; a look of total disbelief on his craggy face.

Reis dropped his rifle on the bed of the truck, slipped out and began to run.

Cecile saw Rafe Schulman crouched in the cockpit, unarmed, muttering between clenched teeth, searching for a weapon. There was nothing. At Cecile’s side, where she lay handcuffed on the floor, van Rooyen crouched, his radios forgotten, the muzzle of the G3 grinding into her neck.

Her breath came in terrified whistling gasps as she strained against the cuffs. She whimpered, then gave a little cry of agony as the steel bit deeper. A bulky figure appeared in the rear doorway.

“Drop that! Or I’ll kill her!” van Rooyen screamed.

McNeil wavered, desperate, uncertain. Van Rooyen snarled the command again. McNeil let the pistol drop. As it hit the floor, van Rooyen lifted the G3 and was firing as it swung into line and McNeil was starting to throw himself sideways.

Only two shots left the muzzle when Rafe’s boot crashed into the back of van Rooyen’s neck. McNeil was thrown against the bulkhead and slid to the floor. Van Rooyen lay sprawled in the aisle, the rifle under him. Wriggling, moaning, he tried to rid himself of Rafe on his back, his hands under van Rooyen’s chin, cursing, shouting, forcing his head back and up; up until van Rooyen’s moan turned to a squeak. Then there was an audible click. Although the body was limp, now, Rafe went on cursing, foully, insanely. Rosa was screaming, her head buried in her father’s shoulder, but he could not lift his handcuffed wrists to comfort her.

Manuela reached her pistol as Geoff released his capewells and dropped to the ground, off balance. She screamed at him and aimed.

Who would ever really know what the dying man thought as he lay there, the fire that had been his life spluttering to an intermittent spark. Maybe, lying there, Theo wondered where he had gone wrong. It was too late, of course, because he, who had killed so many, was dying. Theo, who had lately betrayed those who trusted him, had in turn been betrayed. Did he know that he had become a rabid dog?  That it was just that Pieter had to put him down? Pieter, who didn’t want to leave McNeil and Nourse on the mountain. It was too late to right his wrongs now, but it seemed that Theo decided to try…

He shot Manuela.

To be continued…

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The BARROS PAWNS – Serial Episode #10 Ch. 28-30

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 28-30.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

Baobab & hutsTWENTY EIGHT

Once or twice, while the others were resting in the shade at the side of the dry stream bed, Piet Visagie said later, Theo Theunissen had climbed to high ground to see if he could see the Zambezi, but all there was were never-ending leafless mopane trees. They had tried walking through it, but, although the mopane itself was open, every minute watercourse was lined with thickets of salvadora and sour plum, so, in the end, they stuck to the stream bed, ploughing through the loose sand and scrambling over the boulders. They saw several zebra, sable, impala and warthog. Once, a magnificent nyala bull plunged out of the mopane and through the bed ahead of them.

“God, there must be water, somewhere!” Piet mumbled through cracked lips. He had taken station near the still-concussed Rafe Schulman who plodded along in the rear.

But there was no water. Around every corner, they hoped to find a muddy puddle in the frequent depressions, but there was nothing. The shadows grew longer until the sun was just above the trees, then Theo heard it. He hissed for the others to stop. They listened.

There was a rhythmic thumping, and, very faintly, someone singing. Theo motioned them to wait, quietly, and that Pieter should go with him. With infinite caution, they walked down the bed.

A black woman was kneeling on a flat rock with a tall wooden mortar between her knees. Her heavy breasts bounced on her belly with every strike of the pole that she used as a pestle. She sang to the beat of it as she ground the millet in the mortar. At the foot of the rock was a pool of muddy water from which a well worn path led up into the mopane to a pair of huts on the ridge. She seemed to sense them, then, and arose, beginning a keening wail of fright. The mortar rolled down the rock, spilling the millet until it came to rest in the mud. She bounded around the pool and up the path. Theunissen caught up to her just as she reached the huts. Two little children appeared, wide-eyed in terror, and an old woman whose naked dugs hung like barbers strops to below her navel. The younger woman flung herself to the ground and made no attempt to rise until Theo motioned her to do so with his rifle.

The huts were old and sagging, mopane poles and grass, but the inhabitants had planted a good patch of millet and cassava to one side. A pair of curs began to yap, but they kept well out of the way. An impala skin lay drying on the roof of one of the huts. Between the buildings, a fire smouldered under a three-legged pot. Strips of meat, probably from the impala, were hanging in a grewia shrub nearby. Flies covered the strips until it seemed they had a life of their own.

Oopi lo madoda ka wena?” Theo tried Fanagalo. Where is your man? There was obviously a man around, the dead impala testified to that. The woman gabbled, but Piet caught the word Bandar. That was a store that Nourse had mentioned, according to Sanderson. Theo said he was worried about these isolated huts. Out here, there was no control by the Portuguese, so it stood to reason that the occupants were in contact with Frelimo. In the Congo, he said, he had shot women and even children that were in a position to endanger him or his men. In this case, however, Frelimo knew they were in the area, so nothing would be gained and the bodies would tell the same story as easily as the tongues of these women. Piet agreed with relief.

“Take that gourd, Piet, and bring me water. Call the others.” Theunissen waited until they were all assembled before he went into the huts. There was nobody else there. They all had their fill of the brown water. Muller armed himself with an axe that he found there.

“Take us to Bandar,” Theo told the woman, meaning both of them should come along. He indicated that the children must stay behind, to which the old woman protested shrilly. They were a two-year old boy and a four-year old girl. Theunissen prodded her sharply in the belly with his rifle barrel.

“For God’s sake, Theo,” protested Piet, angrily, “Let her stay with the kids!” Theo swung around and eyed him, coldly.

“I am not allowing her to trot off to the nearest Frelimo so that they can ambush us, so belt up or you can stay and look after the little black bastards. Clear?”

Visagie looked away after a short, defiant glare. Sanderson seemed to be quite content to leave these decisions with Theunissen and even take orders. He brought up in the rear as they filed across the ravine, led by the two Sena women. The crying of the two children that were left barred up in the hut did not seem to bother him, but he was obviously more worried about the gathering gloom of the coming night.

Theo had the two women gagged and roped together and gave their control to Muller so that he, himself, was free to move as he saw fit. It wasn’t long before a moon rose to give them just enough light to discern the way. After an hour, they approached more huts which they skirted with caution. Once they heard voices. Theo led them off into hiding until two men had passed, his rifle pressed against the younger woman’s head. After another stumbling two hours, they approached several more huts in a cluster. Dogs smelt them and started a cacophony of howls, snarls and yaps. Theo took off the younger woman’s gag.

“Bandar.” She confirmed. They were on the bank of the mighty Zambezi. Beyond the huts, they could make out the square bulk of the trading store, from which a glimmer of light from a paraffin lamp came from a window. They could hear a gramophone scratchily thumping out an African pop tune. As they approached, they could see figures dancing on the veranda to the beat. Several people sat on the wide steps; there was the glint of bottles. Theo’s group kept going, bunched up. Someone shouted; the dancing stopped, those sitting came to their feet. But, so far, they detected no threatening moves.

“Who are you?” someone shouted above the beat.

The younger woman gabbled a reply and the atmosphere became electric. As they approached, they could see that the doors were wide open and faces were peering back at them from within. The party moved in, nerves drum tight and their guts in knots. A murmur arose around them from the villagers, menacing, now. Here and there was a demanding shout.

The Petromax pressure lamp on the counter threw long grotesque shadows on the grimy walls and the sparsely stocked shelves. Shadows of dried fish, bunches of scarves, bicycle wheels and dresses hanging from the ceiling danced as they brushed against them. In one corner were two ancient treadle sewing machines, next to stacked sacks of maize meal. Three men slid off the counter where they had been sitting, drinking beer. One of them was in a black uniform; there was an old 8mm rifle in the corner, next to him, at which he briefly glanced, but the sight of Theunissen’s weapon discouraged him from reaching for it. Several beer bottles littered the counter. Behind it, a young Indian licked his lips and tried to smile.

Boa noite, os Senhores!” He croaked, nervously, “What can I do for you?”

Theo guessed what he said. “Good evening. Do you speak English, French?” He spoke politely, but he motioned the man in black and the Indian to stay where they were and for the other two to get out. They did so quickly when he waved the R3 at them.

“A little, I speak,” he licked his lips again. “I no hearing car, Sir. You having car?”

“Broken. You have a car?”

Sim, gotting Landrover! Very old, very old, but going!” His proud smile began to fade as he realised that they might want it. “But not gotting any petrol…” He surveyed the dirty, unshaven men in their crumpled uniforms and shrank before Theo’s cold gaze.

“Who is this?” Theo indicated the man in the black uniform as he took the old rifle and passed it to Sanderson, who checked the magazine. “Mind it doesn’t blow up in your face.”

“He is Administrator guarda for village, Bandar, here.”

“Does the Administrator come here often?”

“Not more. Not six month, now. Too much Frelimo, here.”

Viva Frelimo!” came a voice from the window. There was a shutter over it, but it was broken at the bottom and they could see faces peering in at them. The murmuring increased and Theo’s group stirred, nervously.

Viva Frelimo!” Theo replied. “Muller, bar the back door, make sure there is nobody else in the building. Sanderson, get those women untied, then push them into the corner with that guard bloke. We may need some hostages.  Also find and load some torches from this guy’s shelves. Schulman and Visagie, get us all some food and civvies from the shelves, khakis will do fine.” He kept his gaze on the store keeper who was watching in dismay as they ransacked his shelves for food and clothing. Theo shut the main door on the muttering, angry faces with another “Viva Frelimo!” and dropped the bar in its slot.

“You are paying for these clothes and foods and things, yes?” The unfortunate Indian’s voice quavered fearfully.

“No, my friend, you are. Open that drawer!” Theunissen was behind the counter with him. Under it was a drawer that served as a till. “You don’t own this shop. Who does?”

The lad reluctantly fished out a bunch of keys. “There is not many money here. It is Senhor Hassim from Mutarara, he owns. He must pay Frelimo for not burn down shop, for not to putting bomba on road. Please, you not taking money from Hassim, he killing me!” He brightened, then, as a thought struck him. “You go to Mutarara, you paying Senhor Hassim for what you take?”

Theo allowed himself a grim smile. “Of course. Don’t worry about old Hassim. How far to Mutarara?” He pulled out the drawer and counted the money before pocketing it. There was less than a thousand Escudos there.

“About a hundred and sixty kilometre, Sir.”

“When did you see Hassim, last?” Theo queried. The lad misunderstood and said he would be coming next week with a big lorry to replenish supplies and take the money. Theo repeated, annoyed, and the frightened man admitted that Hassim had not been there for over a month. He flinched, as if he expected the next question. He was not wrong.

“Then there is more money, this is not all you take in a month. Where is it?”

“No, no! Is all; peoples here not having much money, are poor peoples!”

Theunissen backhanded him hard, so that he bounced back against his shelves and his lip burst against his teeth. He fell over some cartons on the floor and sat on them. He began to sob.

“Is more, Sir. Sorry, Sir, I show you…” He got to his feet. The others in the room watched in silence, some, like Visagie and the hostages, in sympathy; Sanderson with indifference, and Rafe was unaware of the incident at all – he was fast asleep with his face buried in a khaki shirt on the counter.

“Come with me, Piet.” Theo said, “Sanderson, watch the bastards. I’m going with the Curry-muncher to look for the dough.” He pushed the Indian lad ahead of him into the rear of the building. It consisted of a short, dim, passage with a doorway on either side, one without a door. In the passage stood three two-hundred litre drums and a stack of full grain bags. In the room with no door, lit by a candle, was a table with a primus stove, a bucket of filthy water, some unwashed dishes and a toothbrush on it. On a shelf were more candles, some spanners, pots, a sable antelope horn and some magazines from India. In one corner, amidst crates of empty beer bottles and a few full ones, stood an ancient paraffin refrigerator with the door open. Muller, almost guiltily, handed them each an open 2M and pulled out another one for himself, trying to look as if he had not already thrown one down his throat.

Theo lifted it to his mouth and warned, “Just watch out on an empty stomach, Muller. Frelimo could be -”

The Indian ducked under his elbow, knocked the R3 aside and leaped for the opposite door. He was through it and had slammed it shut before Theo, cursing, regained his balance and swung his weapon around. The two shots through the door were deafening in the confined space. So, it really was loaded, thought Pieter, but not pursuing the possible significance before Theunissen kicked the door open and leaped inside. The youth was on his knees beside his bed, his hands tugging the shotgun clear as Theo’s next shots threw him against the wall, screaming; three holes in his arm and chest.   The scream started to bubble blood and changed to a gurgle as bloody froth ran down his chin.

“Stupid bastard!” panted Theo. “What the fuck did he think…Pieter, search this room; there is money, somewhere, and we need it to get to Beira. Muller, come, we’ll check the front, and then I’ll be back.”

Piet, shocked and sickened at the ruthlessness of the man, did as he was told like a robot. He found the money in a box under the plank bed along with a box of shotgun cartridges. He brought it all to the front before Theunissen had a chance to return. Rafe was awake again, opening tins of food. Theo gave Sanderson the twelve-gauge and Muller took the old Mauser; which left only Rafe and Piet unarmed. When Muller came back with more beer for everyone, he contemptuously reported that the Indian was dead.

The exhaustion that they had felt had dropped away with the first bottle of beer. They ate and drank, feeling new strength seeping back.

All was quiet, outside; the gathering had melted away with the first shots. Even the dogs had ceased their yapping. The hostages huddled in their corner, staring wide eyed at their captors. Visagie dropped three cans of bully-beef at their feet. Theo shrugged and Muller bit back his scornful comment. Rafe Schulman’s eyes had lost a bit of their glazed look, now, with food in his belly.

“Feeling better?” Piet asked him as he changed into his new clothes. The biggest trousers there were still too small, so he and Muller, who had the same problem, kept their uniform trousers on. With the killing of the Indian, Piet was an accessory to murder, now, and he tried not to think of that fact.

“Much, but bloody tired and my head hurts. What happened to the rest of us? Dan and Geoff? Jan? How did we get here?”

“You don’t remember?” Piet recapped as far as he knew. “I am sure none of them made it, just us. We’re trying to get to Beira, as far as I know.” They were away from the others, but he lowered his voice to a murmur. “Sanderson is up to something, a plan to make some big bucks and the others seem to be going for it. I don’t know how. All I want to do is get back down south. What about you?”

“I want to get back too,” Rafe said without hesitation, “but let’s keep our mouths shut until we see how things are shaping. I don’t trust that bastard…”

“Something else is worrying me, too, Rafe. How come Theo’s got live ammo -”

“Come on, you two!” Theunissen barked at them. “Get our supplies near the door, get those drums of paraffin from the back and soak the place. Sanderson, Muller, watch those black bastards. Pieter, bring that petrol that Muller found and let’s go look at this Landy. When I say the word, you chuck the supplies in and get yourselves aboard.” He turned to follow Piet. “We’ll leave the back door open, Sanderson, so stand where you can keep an eye on it.”

They found the Landrover parked behind the store. After a careful check that there was nobody about, they went out to it. It was an ancient short-wheelbase without a roof. Piet found the tank. It had lost its filler cap and a rag had been stuffed into the pipe. He emptied the jerry cans into it; about thirty litres, he reckoned. There was a good moon and no need for a torch. Nothing moved that they could see. They were right on the bank of the river and just below them was a fuel-drum and mopane-pole jetty with several dugout canoes tied to it. The water was a sheet of silver in the moonlight. Far off, a jackal howled, answered by another close by.

“The key won’t turn the starter!” Pieter hissed desperately.

“There should be a knob under the dash on the fire wall, man.”

A few seconds later Theo heard the starter turn, feebly, once. Pieter swore. The battery was flat. Theo told him that there should be a crank, somewhere; probably behind the seats. He found it and went around to the front of the vehicle while Theo got behind the wheel. He gave it half choke and waited impatiently for Visagie to find the starting dog and engage the crank. He put his weight to the handle; the engine started with a roar. Clutching the handle, he jumped in and Theo took the little vehicle around the store, while the village dogs started to howl again.

Muller opened the front door; he and Schulman threw the supplies on board. Sanderson came out, backwards; his shotgun still trained on the prisoners. Theo told Piet to take the wheel. He gestured for the prisoners to go, indicating the back door. They scampered for it as he lit a piece of newspaper and dropped it, flaming, to the wet floor. In three seconds, he was aboard and Visagie was accelerating away. By the light of the flames, they could see people hiding in their hut doorways as they roared along the track down the river. A single shot flung ineffectively at them from a hut sounded like nothing they had heard before. It was from an 1856 Tower musket; one of a few dozen used for poaching, left over from thousands used as trade goods in the last century.

The track took them through a shallow ravine lined with tall trees and thicket. Ahead was grassland that only became visible when they crested the further slope. In the light of the only headlamp, Pieter saw a dozen figures diving into the scrub at the edge of the thicket. He huddled low over the wheel and tried to push the peddle through the floor.

“Get down! Ambush!” Theo roared. Bullets stitched the side of the bodywork. Theo fired back, short bursts. The shotgun in Sanderson’s hands boomed twice, the recoil nearly throwing him off the back. There wasn’t time for the fear that he’d felt in the Dakota and at the mountain to take its numbing hold of him. They picked up speed and got out of range. A grenade exploded with a shattering blast behind them; if anything, only helping their impetus.

Everyone seemed to be muttering curses, but Piet knew it was from relief. He bent forward to try and see the next pothole before he hit it.

“Anyone hurt?” demanded Theo, as he clipped in another magazine. Except for a graze on the back of Muller’s calf from a shot that came through the door, nobody was.

 

TWENTY NINE

The moonlight threw the gaunt, leafless Combretums into grotesque, sinister silhouettes. A lion roared, shattering the quiet night. That woke Geoff Nourse. It took him several seconds to remember where he was. He was lying in a pile of leaves with someone. Dan McNeil. His tensing with frightened awareness, and the throbbing pain in his shoulder, woke McNeil. He sat up with a groan and looked at his watch. It was just after midnight; they’d had five hours sleep. It was enough. There was plenty of light to continue by. The next roar was very close and McNeil started with fright.

“Lion, quite close,” hissed Geoff. Dan told him the time and said they should be on their way. Neither moved, ears straining to filter the night sounds. “Fuck ‘em, anyway,” said Geoff and they lit up a cigarette each, knowing it was foolish as they were both thirsty. They hoped the smell would warn the animal that here were men nearby. After ten minutes of silence, they moved out. The moonlight was enough to see where they were going. They found the dry stream that Theunissen had followed – by the light of a match, their prints were visible in the sand – and set off down it. There were signs of moisture in hollows, but they could not spare the time to dig. They rested every hour for ten minutes, then ploughed on.

“Hey, Dan, what’s that glow, do you think?”

There was a tiny fan of light on the horizon, to their right. They climbed out of the stream bed to see better, but it did not help.

“A fire of some sort,” muttered Dan through clenched teeth. He clutched his aching shoulder. Then they thought they heard some gunfire; it lasted about a minute.

“It must be at Bandar, or near there, according to my reckoning.” Nourse frowned. “I wonder how Theo and them are faring? I wonder if they don’t need help?”

“How in Christ’s name would I know? Now, shut up and let’s try and get there! Then we’ll know.” Dan started back into the stream bed and Nourse followed, chastened. Poor bastard, that shoulder must be giving him hell.

Then, around a bend was a muddy pool at the edge of which lay a wooden grinding mortar with millet spilled from it. By the light of another match, Geoff was able to read the sign and looked up at the black silhouette of the huts, his AK covering them.

“Cover me, Dan; I’ll have a look-see.” As he approached them, the dogs came alive, snarling. Someone, in the one hut with the closed door, started crying. Nothing else moved but a rooster that drew himself up and crowed. Nourse kicked the door open and leapt aside. When nothing happened, he called out in Sena and in a minute, two little children appeared, wide-eyed. He spoke gently to the elder, a four-year old girl, who told him that some whites had taken her mother and grandmother to Bandar. She pointed out the path. She did not know where her father was; he had gone off the previous morning.

Nourse trotted back to Dan and reported. They drank their fill of muddy water with the same gourd used by the others, then took the path that they had taken.

“Used the women as guides, then?” asked Geoff.

Dan nodded, “And hostages, if I know Theo.” They felt better for the liquid inside them. Now they were heading straight for the fire, but its intensity was fading as the sky lightened with the approaching sunrise that was a pale yellow-grey band to the east. After an hour, they came upon more huts, but they were devoid of life; they presumed that the occupants had gone to Bandar to see the fire. They strode on, alert and nervous. Geoff asked after Dan’s shoulder but the latter told him to belt up or they would walk into someone without hearing them. They gave some more huts, with an old crone starting the morning fire with several small children, a wide berth. Then they saw movement ahead and heard voices. They melted into the undergrowth.

Coming up the slope were three adults; a man in ragged shorts and a dirty vest, a young woman and an elderly one. They were hurrying and chattering as they came. They did not see the two whites until they stepped onto the path. The young woman squeaked in fright, the man clenched his knob-headed stick tightly and waited, trembling but expressionless.

“Where are you going, my friend?” Nourse asked in Portuguese; he thought it wiser to keep his knowledge of Sena a secret for the time being. The man shifted his weight nervously, but they were trapped by the threat of the rifles.

“To my home, Senhor. My children are alone there. They will be afraid and hungry.”

“Where have you come from? What is that fire that we see?”

“These are other whites,” muttered the old woman to the man in Sena. “Not the same.” He ignored her.

“From the store at Bandar; it burns down. The Indian man who runs it has been shot dead last night.”

“Who did this?”

“Some soldiers, Senhor.”

“Portuguese soldiers?”

He hesitated and licked his lips. “No, Senhor, they were Inglesi.

“Are they still there?”

“No, Senhor, they left after they started the fire. They took the Landrover of the store, then they were -”

“Do not tell them what happened, my son, the Liberty Fighters will kill us. We must tell them about these two and they will kill them. Their clothes are the same as the ones that took us from our home.” The old woman’s voice was fast and fierce. Geoff understood her, but he asked what she had said.

“She says that we must hurry back to the children, Senhor.” Geoff smiled at the lie.

“We have seen your children, if it is the home with the impala skin on the roof. They are lonely, but they are well.” He turned and reported to McNeil; he told him that these were Theo’s hostages. He angrily told him about the killing of the Indian storekeeper, the escape in the store vehicle and that the old woman was all for handing them over to Frelimo, although he used the word Ters instead, so that the locals would not guess that they had been understood.

“In the Congo, we’da cut the bastards throats to keep them quiet. Try and find out what happened while I think about it.”

“What happened when the soldiers left?” Nourse didn’t want to believe that his friend was capable of the act he had stated, so he put it down to his pain. He gestured with his AK. “Were they attacked? You must tell me the truth, or we will have to kill you.”

The man trembled. The old woman screamed, “Tell them nothing!” He seemed to make up his mind.

“They were attacked by a band of Frelimo, but they got away down the Mutarara road, Senhor. There are many Frelimo here. They will kill me for talking to you. We are afraid; the Portuguese used to punish us if we aided Frelimo and now they do not come here anymore, so they cannot protect us from Frelimo. We must feed them and they sleep with our women when they want. Please let us go, we will say nothing.”

“Yes, they were attacked by Ters, Dan, but they got through. He says there are plenty in the area. I suggest that we give Bandar a wide berth and head for Lake Lifumba. If there are still fishermen there, we may get a lift to Mutarara. Or we can steal a vehicle. We could take these people with us part of the way, or simply tie them up.”

“Sounds fine. Just get on with it, will you?”

Geoff turned back to their captives. “Where is the path to Lifumba, which does not go from Bandar?”

From his expression, the man was surprised that Nourse knew of the lake. The old woman’s muttering was ignored. “There is a path from the huts that you just passed,” he said. “It leads to the lake.”

“Take us there, but go through the bush until you meet the path.” They were not far from the huts, but cutting across the grain of the country was rough, especially for McNeil. When they reached it, Nourse led their prisoners back into the bush for a hundred metres and tied them to separate mopane trees and gagged them with bits of their ragged clothing. He knew it would not be long before they managed to free themselves. He apologised to the man and woman in Portuguese, then, as he tied the old woman, with McNeil covering them, he told the old woman in Sena that she must listen to the man of the house in future. The man laughed from behind his gag and thanked them for sparing their lives with nods of his head.

The sun was well above the horizon, now and bolstered their spirits with a kindly warmth as they set off down the Lifumba path. Geoff was thinking with unease about the killing of the storekeeper and telling himself that it must have been necessary, that the man must have been in league with Frelimo, but it was a bad thing, killing a civilian. It must have been Muller, he told himself. He remembered the battle on the flat-topped hill when he was sure that the German had taken a shot at O’Donnell, although Dan had said he must have imagined it. Something strange about O’Donnell’s death, too, but it transpired that Muller had been with Jan and Piet at the time. Theo said he had slipped… Still, imagination or not, he would not like Muller to be where he could not keep an eye on him.

God, but things had happened since they had come here! Six left, out of, what was it, eleven? Friends, dead. Just like that! Arnie Sharpe, the cocky Kiwi, full of fun; Clem White; the senseless death of O’Donnell; Johnny Blair at Muambe, game ‘til the last, gutsy Pommy sod; poor Jannie de Groot, just as he reached the top of the mountains, blown to smithereens. Was he the last to die? Nourse thought, please God, no more! A mood of depression blanketed his previous optimism brought on by the sun. He was thirsty again, and so hungry. The sun was now more hot than pleasant and sweat trickled down his ribs. Through yet another ravine, over yet another ridge. Then he heard it; a faint staccato sound. He stopped.

“What is it, Geoff?” Dan whispered. He, too, listened intently, head on one side, forgetting for a moment the pain in his shoulder.

“Chopper!” They said, simultaneously. They looked around; there was no place near them for a helicopter to land. The mopane was too dense and there were plenty of taller knob-thorn trees, as well. They looked for a more open patch and found a possible place that had been cleared a long time ago. They stood on a large, fallen tree trunk, the better to be seen. They reached out with their minds, willing the chopper to find them. Chukka-chukka-chukka. Then they caught a glimpse of it, low down, towards the Zambezi. It seemed to be following the Bandar track. It was not high, only about forty or fifty metres above the deck.

“Bloody fool! Frelimo will shoot him out of the sky!” McNeil watched the machine with growing apprehension. It was south of them, now, almost past them, maybe a kilometre away. They waved furiously, Dan one-handed. What relief when it tilted and swung towards them, the sound of the blades harsher with banking. It was close enough for them to see the pale faces of occupants when, without warning, it happened.

A streak of flame hit the tail, near the rotor. It tilted crazily and began to spin, dropping. Someone had scored a skilful or lucky hit with an RPG2 rocket. The two men were in full stride when they heard the crash as the machine disappeared into the trees. Mopane saplings whipped their faces as they ran, dodging the larger trees and jumping the fallen timber and shrubs. Then they could see the stricken Bell on its belly, its main rotor grotesquely crumpled, the motor dead. They staggered on, managing to stay on their feet; they were torn but unaware of it, their breath sawing in their chests. Nourse, in the lead, could see movement as someone pulled somebody else from the wreck. It was Brand.

“Get under cover!” shouted McNeil. Geoff saw Dan’s chopping finger, signalling him forward. He and Dan plunged past the wreck and threw themselves into defensive positions, spread out to protect a wider area. They were none too soon; there was a shout down slope in the direction of a thicket-choked ravine. Nourse kept his eyes moving, searching the bush, his hands trembling, his heart was a trip-hammer under his heaving ribs, his tongue a thirsty, croaking toad sitting in the dry, open cave of his mouth. He risked a glance at the helicopter, thankful that it had not burst into flames. Brand disappeared with his burden for a moment, then scampered back to the machine and reached into it. Nourse tore his eyes back to the ravine just in time to see a shiny dark face emerge and, incredibly, a white face behind it. The surprise of it made him hesitate. It was only as the black man’s AK reached his shoulder with the sights on Brand, that Geoff found himself firing. He saw both men go down and all hell broke loose.

Dan fired burst after burst at figures that rose from the grass and shrubs. Brand was on the ground near the machine with the R3 that he had retrieved, but it was too open. He rose to a crouch and plunged into the scrub, screaming as a bullet knocked his feet out from under him. He rose to his knees, searching for a target.

Someone still inside the machine moved and a gun barrel appeared at the shattered rear window. It, too, began to fire. Then there was a crack, a roaring streak of flame and a rocket tore into the wreck. The ground shook to the explosion. McNeil’s next shot took away part of the rocketeer’s head. Then there was a short lull with only the sound of desperate breathing and the occasional shout from further away.

Nourse found himself looking into the eyes of a man up a mopane tree, thirty metres away. They lifted their AKs simultaneously and fired as one. The bark under his shoulder lifted away and nudged him as it went; the man fell out of the tree and bounced like a sack. He lay unmoving. Geoff nearly vomited with relief. Someone began to whimper. Still the Bell did not burn although it was smoking. It was totally quiet when the whimpering stopped. For nearly ten minutes, nobody moved.

“Colonel Wanga?” a reedy voice called. A pause, as all the living waited for a reaction.

“I think he is dead…” It was in Sena. Nourse listened intently.

“Our Captain is dead, too. Where is the white?”

“Also, I think… I am hit in the leg…”

“We must go, my friend,” another voice said. “There were more in the bush, maybe ten of them…” Here and there was a rustle, a snapping of twigs, a groan. They were retreating. McNeil fired at some waving grass. Someone cursed. More rustling slowly died away.

A small yellow skink with a blue tail moved down the tree trunk near Nourse’s face. He began to feel the discomforts of his position now; the bark at his shoulder, the twig digging into his thigh, his shirt plastered to his back with sweat that was slowly drying. He smelled the dust on the dry autumn grass; the sun began to burn his neck.

“You there, McNeil?”

“Yes.” Dan paused to see if there was any reaction from the enemy to his voice. Nothing. “That you, Brand? Are you alright?”

“Hit in the calf. Bates, he was the pilot, has some injuries and another man, De Souza, was still in the chopper. That rocket got him…Where is van Rooyen?”

Oh, yes, Sanderson. “Not with us, Sir. Can we talk later? Foe may still be about. Will you see to your friend, Bates, was it? Nourse and I’ll do a bit of a recce.”

“Go ahead, then.”

Geoff got slowly to his feet; the skink scuttling away was the only hostile reaction that he caused. He and McNeil carefully searched the bush. They found six bodies and one severely wounded. Amongst the dead, besides the unknown white man, was a man with spectacles and makeshift colonel’s insignia, and likewise, a captain. It was unlikely for two high ranking officers to be together, so they concluded that not only had at least two bands combined, there had been a very high priority put on finding the South Africans. Maybe it was Sanderson that was so precious?

If one of the groups was from the crater mountain, it must have been the second group that had had the rocket, Geoff reasoned, the one that had tried to stop Theo on the road outside Bandar. He had been lucky not to have been blown up by the fearsome weapon. They did, however, note that the Captain had been wounded previously; his arm had been freshly bandaged. None of the bodies had any form of personal identification, as was normal. The wounded man was unconscious; they left him where he lay. They collected three AKs and a Tokarev pistol, believing that the survivors had taken the other arms, including the rocket launcher, in their withdrawal.

When they returned to Brand, it was to find him deftly bandaging his own leg. A blond stranger was lying flat on his back beside him, cigarette in his bandaged hand and an R3 in the other. His broad chest, too, was bandaged, from a torn shirt.

“Name’s Bates,” he greeted with a wan smile. “Nourse and McNeil, I believe?”

“I’m McNeil,” Dan said. “Geoff, keep watch, will you? I need some of this man’s expertise.” He nodded at the first-aid kit from the helicopter that lay open at Brand’s side. It was not equipped for a full scale war, but there were still some antiseptic and pain killers. “I’ll take him to see that white Ter when he’s finished me. He may be interested.”

“A white man?” The creases of pain on Brand’s face changed to surprise and his shaggy eyebrows shot up. “I certainly am! I must also see if the radio is still working. Top priority is to get hold of Duvenage and tell him the set up. Now, McNeil, fill me in on what’s happened. Where the hell is van Rooyen?”

 

THIRTY

Pieter Visagie thought that it had been a major shock to Sanderson and Theunissen to discover that the bridge over the Zambezi was not a road bridge, but a rail bridge only. For Pieter and Rafe Schulman, it was a relief, although they had tried not to show it. It had been three in the morning when they got there. They woke a sleeping guard at the Dona Ana station. He spoke no English. Eventually, Theo got through to him in French. No bridge for the car here. Must wait for the train at ten o’clock and put car on the train. If they didn’t want to wait, then they must drive to the Shiré ferry, cross the river, go to Murrembala, turn south for Mopeia, catch the ferry there to cross the Zambezi, then they would be on the way to Beira…No, there was nowhere they could get petrol at this time of night, or, indeed, at any time. There was petrol at Baué, about five kilometres away on the Malawi road. But the shop that sold it only opened at eight o’clock.

As, in fury, they turned to go, the guard slyly told them that he had a twenty litre can of petrol to sell them. He collected it from his home only fifty metres away and sold it to them for twice the normal price, but it was as well that he didn’t see the Landrover that they were driving, or he might have recognised it and wondered…

ShireFerryMorrumbala

Rio Shire ferry at Mount Murrembala

 

They tore down the rutted road across the floodplain to the ferry. Here, their luck was in. The ferry over the Shiré River was on their side and it was of the self-pull cable kind. They manned the winch before the ferry keeper could awake from his hut, nearby, and stop them. He would have to cross by dugout to retrieve it. They drove off under the looming silhouette of Serra Murrembala.  It was another twenty kilometres to Murrembala town on a very bumpy, eroded road, so although they tried to snatch some sleep, it was impossible. At a quarter to four, they roared into the sleeping town, needing petrol for the hundred kilometre trip to Mopeia.

Pieter parked at the pumps on the dark, tree-lined main street. Everyone got out stretching their legs while Theo went to wake the shop owner at the house attached to the store, set back from the street. Eventually, a dishevelled little man appeared and Theo silenced his protests with a thousand escudos worth of grubby notes from his roll. In ten minutes, they were on the road again. It was deeply rutted by the huge trucks that plied it and they made poor time. Once, the truck got bogged down in the sand and it took their combined efforts to push it out. One of the two stores in Mopeia was open when they got there at six-thirty. Truck drivers were waking from the four enormous lorries that had spent the night there on their way to Beira from Quelimane. They hawked, spat and farted as they made their way to the bar for a coffee and roll. The South Africans dearly wanted to follow suit, but Theo forbade the stop. They crossed rich alluvial farmland as they headed for the ferry. Several large trucks, mostly MANs and Scandias, and a Landcruiser were already there waiting for the ferry. The engines started as they got there and a crewman waved them on with the Landcruiser to occupy a smaller space under the bridge. Two trucks rolled on, tilting the ferry crazily. The ramps were raised, the skipper yelled at a shore man to let go the manilas and then they were spinning away into the current. The diesels roared and they set off into the mist that lay on the river; the far bank was invisible. Then the bank that they had left faded as well and they were cocooned in noisy cotton wool as the ferry chugged on. The further bank appeared. The diesels howled, hard astern; the helmsman swung the wheel and they were alongside. They paid the mulatto who brought the grubby ticket book. The ramps dropped, the trucks left, one at a time, ferry tilting; then it was their turn. On this side, too, there was a line of trucks waiting. On the bank was a store serving coffee and rolls and Theo stopped to let them stock up and asked the owner the way to Barros’ hunting camp and with a lot of sign language, he was told. Ten kilometres along the Morromeu road, they took a track to the right, into dense forest. After an hour, they were beginning to skirt pans with waterholes. At one they saw three elephant and a small herd of buffalo. At a sawmill, they asked for directions again and after half an hour, they turned onto the track beside Barros’ airstrip.

Rafe Schulman managed to sleep only after they were on the sandy track in the forest, but when Visagie nudged him awake, he was looking more exhausted than ever. Piet saw that he had recovered from the battering that he had received climbing the cliffs of Serra da Muambe and he knew that all he wanted was to get back to Johannesburg. They had tried to get Sanderson to tell them his plans for this get-rich scheme so that they could make their own plans of getting away, but Sanderson had brushed them off with a wait-and-see. They overheard a word or two as the latter discussed details with Theunissen, but not enough to put it together. While stretching their legs and filling with fuel, the two men, now allies of a sort, managed to share a few words. Pieter admitted to Rafe that he wanted out of it, whatever it was. Rafe told him that they would have to be ready for an opportunity, but not to let on that they were anything but loyal and keen.

The party kept their weapons out of sight as they stopped in front of the main bungalow, but saw nobody until Barros himself came to the door. He was tired and strained, surprised at the sight of the South Africans. He said something to someone behind him. Theo levelled his R3 at him, then.

“Get under cover!” He ordered his men. He demanded, “Those bastards, Campos and Ribeiro, where are they? Where is that Commie daughter of your, Barros?”

“Locked up over there.” He bitterly indicated the store where they had once been incarcerated. “Ribeiro is dead, Campos has run away. There is no need for guns, now, Mr. Theunissen. I am glad to see you got away. Come in.” But he was confused at the sight of the man he knew as Sanderson, whom he now understood to be in league with the Chinese; the man that Brand was looking for, so desperately.

“He’s lying, surround the place!”

Muller dodged around the side of the bungalow. Piet dropped down behind the palm tree, from where he could watch. There was the sound of breaking glass as Cecile aimed her Beretta at van Rooyen who ducked behind the old Landrover. She cringed as Theo aimed his weapon at the window and roared.

“Come out, you!”

She appeared at the door, looking pale. She looked familiar to him, but he couldn’t place her. He took her gun. She tried to tell him that they were on the same side, but she was now muddled. How to tell Theo who van Rooyen really was without the latter being aware?

“It’s alright, now, there is no-one else who will harm you,” she said, nervously, still holding out her hand to get her weapon back. “Manuela is locked up and the manager won’t give trouble -”

“Who the fuck are you?” Theo snapped, his wiry body taught with the imminence of action.

“Jean Hanekom, the Professor’s wife.” Cecile tried to smile, but it was a grimace. “I must talk to you alone.”

“Later. What happened here, Barros?”

“After the Dakota returned,” Barros took his cue from Cecile; he was suspicious of Sanderson’s presence, “the Professor and his wife arrived. It was all the diversion that we needed. My manager and I managed to, how do you say, turn the table? – on my daughter and her friends. Ribeiro and my pilot were killed, Campos ran away -”

“Just these two, Theo.” Muller pushed Rosa and Reis onto the veranda. “They were locked up in a room at the end. There’s nobody else here except that old kaffir…”

“Sanderson, take the shotgun and go get Manuela, if she’s there. Muller, keep an eye on this shower while I talk to this woman.”

Cecile walked ahead of Theo to the edge of the stoop, out of earshot of the others, but Pieter could hear her clearly. She turned and spoke to him, urgently. “That man you call Sanderson, he was in the South African Army. He has some classified information that he is trying to sell to the Chinese, to Manuela’s friends. It is vital that we take him back to South Africa. Please, you don’t know how important it is that -”

“He changed his mind, Mrs. Hanekom. He’s not selling it to the Chinese, anymore. Tell me, who are you? Security?” The cold eyes bored into hers. Cecile bit her lip. Now what? She nodded, reluctantly.

“We must still get him back to South Africa so that the Chinese do not get their hands on him. If he has double crossed them, they will redouble their efforts to get hold of him, to force him to tell them what they want to know.”

“Where’s this Professor? He also Security?”

Cecile guardedly told him what had happened, that the helicopter had been shot down while looking for Sanderson, but had found Nourse and McNeil, that they were looking for transport to try and link up with Duvenage in Mutarara.

“Please, help me. Don’t let him get away! I don’t know what story he’s told you but he’s a real threat to the safety of our country.” The words were almost puerile, but her tone was a deeply felt plea. Theunissen looked at her for a long minute and ever so slowly, his lip curled and finally, he snorted. There was no response to her appeal in those cold eyes, only hardening contempt. She had put all her money on the wrong horse.

“So, old Dan made it, hey?” He shook his head in wonder. “Right, Mrs Hanekom, you get back to the others and behave. You are what is commonly called an expendable hostage and if you give the slightest bit of trouble, you will be shot. Sit down with your back to the wall where I can see you.”

Numbly, she did as she was told. Theo told Barros, Reis and Rosa to join her. Rosa began to cry; she put her head down on her knees and sobbed, her father put his arm around her shoulders and patted her ineffectually. It was, for them, a never-ending nightmare. Barros, on whose shoulders the mantle of authority had rested for years, was again being ordered about; just when he had thought it was all over.

Manuela was crossing the ground from the store room, her head held high, her body proud. Van Rooyen came behind her with the shotgun, a honed down man, now, the rounded sides of his former softness gone; angular, hard. Schulman and Visagie joined them, surprised as Theo waved them into the group in front of him with his R3. When they were all assembled where he and Muller could watch them, in all their hearing, he told them what Cecile had said.

“Okay, Sanderson, spell it out.” Theo finished.

For a moment, van Rooyen looked stunned, and then he looked at his watch. He cleared his throat.

“I have the means to destroy all police and military installations and barracks in this country.” His face was tense, sweating, his breath taken in short gasps, his eyes blazed behind his spectacles. “I intend detonating those in and around Beira and obliterating them, so that I and my men can sack the city of its valuables…”

God, he’s incredible, thought Pieter. Only he noticed as Rafe, beside him, battled to keep the laughter from bubbling up inside him, almost making him choke. The stupid goddamned bastard, couldn’t he see how funny he looked with this bloody Hitler act of his. Boo, boo! Get off the stage, you ridiculous turd! He saw Rafe finally get a grip as reality caught up with him and doused the laughter and the scorn withered away to be replaced by the slimy ooze of fear. He, himself, swallowed back the go-to-hell words that perched in his throat and he lived a bit longer.

“Now, Mr. Barros, we have need of your Dakota and facilities at Beira Airport; your hangar and transport. We need to refuel. You will lose everything you own when Portugal gives up Mozambique shortly, as it surely will, sooner than later. I give you this chance of at least getting something out of the country. Join us.”

Caralho!” The obscenity spat from Barros’ lips. “You are mad, a lunatic! You will kill hundreds of my countrymen and you seek my help? You can rot in hell!” He tried to get to his feet, spittle flying from his mouth in his rage.

“No, Papa!” Rosa hung onto him, but it was more the threat of the R3 that halted him. He sank back, shaking.

“You don’t need him. I can arrange whatever you need.” Manuela spoke for the first time since she had been fetched. A protesting outburst, a shocked, horror-filled appeal lashed at her from her father, but she ignored him. Theo was not surprised; a grim smile tugged the corner of his mouth. She said to van Rooyen: “For me, Mozambique is finished. You will be doing what you have been paid to do by the Chinese, except they will not be prepared to take the best advantage, but the result will be the same. Whatever I can do to help, I will do willingly, if I get a share in the takings. What will you do with it? Where will you sell it on?”

“The Dakota will be a so-called plane-load of refugees, escaping the chaos. In fact, we shall return here and build the goods into the plane itself, then fly to Rhodesia. We shall only be a few of many fleeing the country.” The man they knew as Sanderson replied.

One thing Pieter had overheard them say, in fact, was something about their deciding to head for the Comoros, so he realised that Sanderson was lying. With South African and Rhodesian intelligence on the look out for him, Rhodesia was the last place he would go. Manuela was no fool, either, Pieter thought, but she said nothing.

“What about fuel?” Sanderson asked her.

“We have some in drums, but it is not much. We can refuel at Manga Airport in Beira, and then it would be better to operate from the Chota, which is the skydivers’ airstrip. It lies nearer to the City. It is very private. Manga will be out of action when these mines detonate, anyway, no?”

Van Rooyen nodded. “If I so choose,” he said. He turned to Schulman and Visagie.

But before he could speak, Rafe snapped, “What’s our percentage?”

“Typical Jew!” van Rooyen laughed, unable to keep a sneer out of his voice altogether. “Five percent per man. After expenses.”

Piet was also quick on the uptake. “We are stealing everything we need! There are no expenses. Ten percent!” He was glad he had said ‘We’. It added weight to opting in, but he had no intention of allowing mass murder, not for any amount. He would take any opportunity to get out, when it arose. He only hoped that he and Rafe were convincing enough.

“You’re more of a Jew than he is!” van Rooyen said. Theo watched both of them shrewdly, but said nothing. This farce was just wasting time. “Five percent. And you’ll both be rich men.” Assuming this financial bartering meant that they were pledges of ‘we’re in’, van Rooyen turned to the camp manager, Reis.

He was pale grey with fear. He stuttered, “I will do anything you say, just take me to Rhodesia. I cannot stay in Mozambique…” He had a brief search around for sympathy, but there was only contempt. Muller was openly sneering.

“Do as we tell you, and we’ll look after you.” Van Rooyen eyed him coldly.

Barros’ radios were loaded on the plane and arms were stowed. Van Rooyen gave Theo a note which, after a glance, Theo clamped between the double doors as bait before he set the traps on the doors, assisted by Manuela. He did not trust her and made sure she was kept in sight at all times.

She caught sight of the old black man, shuffling as unobtrusively as he could, onto the veranda. She snatched up the old Mauser that Muller had discarded in favour of a G3 automatic rifle and leapt after him, cursing. Her ear still ached from the blow that she had received from his broom. The old man backed against the low veranda wall, pleading. She feinted at his face with the butt and as he whimpered, raising his gnarled hands to protect himself, she smashed it into his scrawny ribcage. His breath exploded from him with a whoosh, his hands came down and she whipped the butt across his yellow-toothed mouth. He fell backwards over the low wall.

Cecile was on Manuela before anyone could stop her, clawing her throat and using her knee. Manuela battered short one-handed blows to Cecile’s midriff; the Mauser glanced off her nose. Theo tore them apart, pushing Cecile so hard that she fell back to where she had been sitting. Manuela tried to twist away to get at her again, but Theo held her with one hand and tore the Mauser away. Muller looked on with amusement. Rafe glanced at Piet and they both wondered if the brief diversion had not been a lost opportunity. Theo told Manuela to cool off; there was no time for petty shit. She glared at Cecile, remembering that it had been her friends that had nearly crushed her head in the vice. Van Rooyen told Muller to get the hostages aboard. Barros and Rosa got up. Cecile, struggling to her feet, tried to avoid her bleeding nose from dripping onto what she had scratched with her nail in the floor wax. She groaned with the pain of her bruised ribs. Tears of frustration and anger ran down her cheeks.

The Dakota lifted off at sixteen minutes past nine, with Rafe in the left hand seat and Manuela beside him.

To be continued…

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The BARROS PAWNS – Serial Episode #9 Ch. 25-27

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 25-27.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

Vulch 1TWENTY FIVE

The crater became a brass bowl and sweat dribbled down the faces of the two men crouched behind the rocks, soaked their shirts and stuck them to their backs, until it seemed that they had no more moisture to give. Their mouths were slimy and their lips cracked. Even so, they were thankful that it was well past mid-summer. It was after ten o’clock, now, quiet but for the small birds and the sharp yelp of lappet-faced vultures at their feast. They couldn’t see the body, but they guessed that it must be da Silva who had fallen without a parachute. The mass of ugly birds were only thirty metres from them; huge, dark, untidy; tearing and delving. Around them, darting in when they could, were a few smaller hooded vultures, mindful of the huge beaks of their brethren.

His lean face lined from squinting into the glare, Geoff Nourse scanned the slope around where the mortar lay. It was no comfort to know that he was six shots into his last magazine. He said, abruptly, “How’re you off for ammo, Dan?”

McNeil quartered the slope over the vultures; besides the birds, nothing moved. But he knew what lay behind the flat rocks beyond, effectively cutting off any attempt they might make of climbing the cliffs, at their backs, in daylight. Frelimo had not fired a shot in many minutes, but they didn’t need to; all they had to do was wait for the South Africans to try their luck. McNeil grimaced. This was it, then. They were to die here in the wilds of Mozambique; by a quick bullet, if they were lucky, by dismemberment, if they were taken alive. Then, there was the thirst that was already a factor, squeezing them, losing moisture that they could not replace. Still, they were unlikely to be alive long enough for thirst to make a big difference…

“Ten or twelve, no more. I wonder why that other mortar stopped? Must be out of shells, except for those with that bitch down there.” He nodded at the nearer tube. “They should have grenade launchers and rockets, but they have thrown nothing else at us. I s’pose everything is out in the field to use on the Portuguese.”

“Does seem strange,” Geoff sucked at his dry mouth to loosen his tongue, “but your theory must be right. Now, you clever bugger, how do we get out of this one?”

Dan grinned, suddenly; his feeling of hopelessness lifting. Geoff hadn’t given up and he was trusting Dan’s experience to get them out of this pickle. He wished that he’d had Nourse with him in the Congo. Okay, analyse. They had twenty shots between them, or two short bursts each. They couldn’t go up; they’d be cut to pieces. The same result if they went down. Except for small boulders, they were exposed all round. All they might survive would be a short dash with the other giving covering fire with the last of their ammo…

“It’s quite simple, my china,” he said, the idea suddenly leaping into his mind. A chance, a slim tenuous, odds-against chance. “Give it an hour. Let them sweat and get cramp and get thirsty. Let them think that we are never going to try it. Then, we try it.”

“Up the kranz? You’re mad, bloody bonkers. Captain, this is your crew speaking; we hereby mutiny.”

“Shut up, crew, and listen. It may be a poor chance, but at least it’s a chance. No, not up the cliffs. We go downhill. You…”

“Now I know you really have a screw loose. What preference do you have for being shot at close quarters instead of being shot at…?”

“Oh, Jesus, Geoff, shut up a minute. You take my ammo and put your rifle on rapid. You cover me. As we know, they’re in two main pockets and by now, could be more, pretty spread out. You have to cover the lot in very short bursts. I’m going to try for the AKs on the bodies down there near the mortar. I think the mortar is out of sight of the johnnies out here on my side so I’ll have only those under cover near the mortar to contend with.”

“Only,” muttered Nourse, “That’s all. Nothing to it. And if you don’t make it, what the hell do I do them?”

“Then you can be Captain.”

McNeil fired as a head and weapon snapped into view beyond the vultures. The birds rose, flapping ungainly. The shot echoed back from the cliffs for nearly a minute before silence fell again. Nothing else happened.

“Think we’ll have any ammo left by then?” Geoff asked, sardonically, as the birds settled again. “What; when our hero has taken the position? I suppose, then, I also have to run like hell?”

“Faster than that, but I’ll have a cold beer waiting for you.”

Geoff wished he hadn’t said that, he could see the golden glass with the condensation trickling down and his furry tongue rasped over his dry lips.

The sun climbed and turned on the heat. Now and then they saw it wink on binoculars across the crater and they wondered who it was over there, waiting for this little pocket of resistance to be wiped out. They had guessed, by now, that the whole charade had been arranged as a spectacle for someone. The South African uniforms, the weapons. Nourse thought of the stupid little transmitter pen in his pocket and asked Dan where in the hell Brand and Cecile were, smothered in their cloaks and tripping over their daggers. Fat lot of help they’d been.

“And I had the man they were after in my hands and I told him to walk away up the mountain. Even wished the fucker luck! Still, he’s changed sides, hasn’t he?”

They both hoped that it hadn’t been the worst mistake of their lives, but it was too late to do anything about it now. They would be vulture food in a little while. They reckoned that they had as much chance of making it out as they had of finding that cold beer Dan’d promised Geoff.

You’re as good as dead, their little voices said, so just take as many of them with you as you can.

The silence and the heat and the minutes dragged on. Across the crater, three or four men could be seen making their way from the bottom of the cliffs up to the bottom of the dent and through it. As McNeil pointed, they knew they were looking at the normal route in and out of the circular valley. Only properly equipped climbers could scale the cliffs, anywhere else, except for the route the escapees had taken that morning. It was McNeil’s guess that the Frelimo just leaving were either being sent to circle around the rim to fire down on them from above, or to bring more mortar shells or an RPG2 rocket. Either way, Geoff thought with a bilious feeling in his stomach, they won’t finish whatever it is before he and Dan made their move. His watch said half an hour left. For what? To live? He glanced at Dan, but he gave nothing away; he merely grinned. Surely he, too, was quaking inside? Nourse returned the grin.

Suddenly Nourse fired and a man fell on top of the mortar. Another grabbed desperately at the weapon under the body of his companion, but hardly moved it before Nourse’s second round took him in the hip. A third man picked up two shells and started back. McNeil took his attention off his own sector to watch in agony as Nourse’s next shot completely missed the shell carrier. Again Nourse’s weapon crashed, but his own side was alive with attacking men and he was feverishly firing, seriously distracted by rising vultures. Something slapped his shoulder, and then it was over.

The shell carrier was down, twitching, ten metres from the cover he had sought – now it only needed a man to risk a short dash to retrieve it for the other mortar. More men had made the protection of the rocks beyond the remains of da Silva’s body which now had the company of two Frelimo who had not made the dash. Another had found a depression just beyond the others, but Dan said he could just see the edge of his shoulder as he flattened himself for dear life into the rock.

Geoff watched with concern as McNeil fingered the lava fragment that was embedded just under his collar bone. He said that the whole area still felt numb after the initial shock of impact. Slowly, the feeling returned in waves of pain and blood began to trickle down his chest and soak his shirt – just another blotch on the camouflage. The time to move was now – before this shoulder stiffened and the enemy had time to lick their own wounds and before they had to use any of their fast diminishing supply of cartridges.

More specks appeared in the clear sky. More food in the larder, so more guests for dinner, Geoff thought as his pulse gradually returned to normal. He risked a glance at Dan to see the ever widening crimson blotch on his shoulder. There was a muffled click as McNeil’s magazine came free. He handed it to Nourse and Geoff realised that Dan had decided to go. Now.  His gut knotted. The last drop of saliva dried up. He saw McNeil clip another magazine from the pouch on his leg and realized that it was the blanks with which they were issued. McNeil caught the glance and smiled tightly.

“Some muzzle blast to fry their eyebrows. I do have one live one up the spout. Do you now have half a mag?”

“More than half, eleven, I make it.” Geoff deftly thumbed those cartridges from Dan’s magazine into his own and replaced it. “So, you’re off then? Send a post card.”

“You’re alright, Geoff Nourse. Just one thing. The one who’ll move first will be the one that’s the most uncomfortable. And there he is. That one over there who thinks he’s a chameleon. Drop him first, then lift your burst to keep the bugger behind him down, then slam that nest of sods around the mortar. And watch you don’t tickle my arse. Okay? That’s it, up yours, I’m off!”

There were a few metres of good cover in the tangle of boulders, then they became more scattered and the surface was steep rock and gravel. McNeil was in full stride by the time he burst into view, making a minimum of noise as he ran on his toes, hurtling down the slope, incapable of stopping even if he’d wanted to.

He’d been right about the chameleon. Geoff’s first two bullets hit him in the chest even as he came to his knees. One man further back also half rose but dropped as the burst lashed gravel into his face. Then the muzzle swung, the splatter of rock chips hit the chest of the man near the mortar who had risen to meet McNeil’s wild dash. The onslaught threw him backwards and his weapon spewed into the sky. Another man who had been crawling after the mortar rolled onto his back and lifted his AK, but McNeil’s single live round went through his throat, then the R3 jammed on the blanks with not enough gas to eject. Even as Dan dropped the useless weapon, he was at the mortar and its complement of dead bodies. With a shower of flying gravel, he allowed his knees to buckle and he collapsed onto the nearest corpse, his hand reaching desperately for the AK at its side, his mind screaming: I’ve made it! I’ve made it! – while hardly daring to believe it.

He pulled the corpse around so that it afforded some scrap of protection and uncovered the spare ammunition pouches. He put short bursts into the rocks round about. The weapon clicked empty and he tugged feverishly at the pouches for another, knowing that he was right out in the open. His shoulder was now a sea of pain and his head spun. It sagged onto the chest of the Frelimo as he blacked out.

His heels were dragging on the rocky ground when he came around. He started to struggle, so Nourse put him down.

“So, walk, then, you lazy bastard,” Nourse grunted. They were almost at some rocks that McNeil eventually recognised as those behind which those men attempting to recover the mortar had lain. From the distance came the rattle of another AK; it licked the dust some twenty metres off and crept towards them as the user corrected, then ran out of ammunition. Then Nourse was back with the mortar.

“Set this up, will you, Dan, while I go and get something to fire through it. Hey, Dan?”

“For Christ’s sake, what’s happening?” McNeil groaned, rolled to his knees and turned to watch Nourse trot with no effort at concealment across to the half dozen mortar bombs lying where the weapon itself had once lain. Besides themselves, the only things that moved were the vultures. Except across the valley…

“Hey! They’re pulling out!” McNeil caught sight of some little figures snaking up the route to the notch.

“Seems like it, Dan,” Nourse laid his load down near the base plate. “Now, give me a hand to try and stop them, will you?”

With McNeil aiming and Nourse loading, they sent three bombs off to the base of the notch. Slowly, the dust cleared. They could see nothing moving. The crater was quiet again and the noon sun beat down, uncaring, impartial.

“Help me with this shoulder, will you, and for Christ’s sake, tell me what…”

“What happened?” Nourse found the strength to grin, wryly. Reaction was now starting to set in and he felt weak at the knees. “Very little, actually. When you set out on your dash, the opposition had all but had it, already. There are probably a couple of Frelimo out in the rocks who wish that Mozambique was also on the National Health, but they seem to be lying doggo until we get the hell out of here, I guess. The rest seemed to be trying to run for it before we – hold on, I can see it! It looks like a piece of rock.” He shifted the lips of the wound so that he could see into it. The edge of the collarbone showed briefly white in it before the blood flowed again. Nourse managed to work the sliver of stone loose and out of the wound while McNeil called him all the filthy names he could think of.

“Yo mama din brung yo up proper, mon!” Nourse said, keeping a weather eye on their surroundings for any sign of active enemy survivors and the tension still made his skin crawl. All he could think of was to get out of the crater and back into the relative safety of the surrounding bush. He armed them with AKs and five full magazines apiece. He nudged the mortar with his boot.

“How do we blow this thing up?” He asked Dan who told him to place the bombs, noses together, to the base plate and the barrel on top.

“Hit the base plate with a burst when we are safe in cover. Now, let’s get the hell out of here, for Christ’s sake!” Dan was feeling better with the piece of stone removed, but the whole shoulder was stiffening and ached abominably. It was now bandaged with strips from Nourse’s trouser legs as he had turned them into shorts. He swayed drunkenly to his feet and took the AK that Geoff handed him with a look of concern. He waited for his head to clear, grateful that it was his left shoulder, not his right. He set off after Nourse, across the floor of the crater. From a safe distance, the latter detonated the mortars with a carefully aimed burst against the base plate.

The ground still sloped down for awhile, but cover from the enemy, such as there might be, increased with gnarled fig trees, acacias, shrubs and bigger boulders. In one such cluster of rocks, there was a small marshy patch that denoted a spring. Here a path started and led to another, larger spring where they drank, deeply, gratefully, then to another. Although the vegetation increased, too, by climbing on higher rocks, Nourse was could see over it and was able to be relatively sure that there was nobody lying in wait. As they approached the cliffs after half an hour’s careful advance, McNeil became aware of the caves. He called to Geoff in the lead.

“Hey, come back here a minute, will you?” He sat and lit a smoke, Nourse squatting beside him, cradling his AK, his eyes peeled. “Do you remember what da Silva said? You told me that he told you, when you were painting the Dak, that they were going to drop us into the Frelimo main camp?”

Ja, so what?” Nourse looked at the pitted, towering cliffs and frowned. “So, the birds have flown, if they survived the mortars.”

“How many did you see, running up that path or whatever it is, before we blotted them out? Five, six? Could you make them out? Weren’t they all black guys, in camo?” Dan’s voice rose in excitement as he became sure of his logic.

“Weren’t we expecting some special spectators, so that our little exhibition had someone to impress? What happened to them, Geoff? I think the buggers are still here, in those caves, waiting to shoot the shit out of us if we go nosing around in there.”

“Oh, shit,” muttered Geoff, feeling quite sick, suddenly. It made sense. He slid down behind a boulder, sweat starting out afresh on his brow. “Then, I’m not curious about what’s in there. I mean, of course there are a hundred cases of cold lager in there, but who wants one, anyhow? Surely we can go around that far side and meet their path half way up. We could be out of sight of the caves, most of the time. Hopefully. Thank God they seem to have no more mortars, or rockets!”

Still pondering the enemy’s lack of a larger armoury, but assuming the rockets and mortars such as they had encountered in the fights of Serra Chimbala and at the Pompue, were in the field, or supplies had run out, they made for the opposite cliffs. While keeping away from the threatening caves, they still hoped that their route would seem natural to any possible observer. An hour later, they reached the path and warily began to trudge up towards the dent. They were half expecting to meet the group that had escaped up it recently. They found some body parts at one of the mortar craters and knew that they had taken out at least one man.

The worst ordeal was climbing out of the dent to attain the main ridge, which, although up and down, actually had some sort of path worn on it, obviously a patrol route. They slowly circled the crater to finally arrive at the further dent where the others had made good their escape that morning. It was sundown when they reached the spot where Theunissen, Muller, Visagie, Schulman and Sanderson has waited for less than half an hour. Nourse ferreted around morosely in the fading light.

“The bastards didn’t wait long, then.”

McNeil nodded. He knew that Nourse was adept at reading sign and didn’t doubt what he said.

“I just do not understand why Theo moved out without some sort of farewell gesture. Not even a message. Perhaps he gave us no chance of survival and decided that waiting was a waste of time.” Dan said, not without a little bitterness.

Geoff smiled wryly; he had given themselves no chance, either! Perhaps some Frelimo had forced them to move? Still, Theo had been acting pretty strange, of late. Maybe he was getting too old for this caper.

They set off on the trail of the others in the remaining light and stopped when they started to trip over things. They had nothing to eat and nothing to drink. McNeil’s shoulder was a block of throbbing pain. Nourse gathered some grass and dried mopane leaves into a hollow in the ground in the shelter of some huge rocks. They felt a little cold, now, but dared not risk a fire this close to the mountain.

“I’m going to have a smoke, Dan. I don’t care if there are fifty Ters out there waiting for me to light up. God, I’m buggered. I could sleep for a week.” Nourse lit two cigarettes and passed one to McNeil. There were five left in his packet. After five minutes, they stubbed them out and crawled into their nest, not bothering to keep watch.

 

TWENTY SIX

The silence was broken with a curse from General Mucongáve. Smuts said something to him in the Sena tongue in a sharp tone and it sounded like the general told him to shut his white trash mouth. John Alistair huddled a little further back into the cave. He shivered in fear. He wondered who would shoot him first; Smuts or the general or the two South Africans who were outside.

Somehow or other, things had gone wrong. It was not difficult to realise that the whole thing had been set up for his benefit. When the Dakota first began to disgorge the paratroopers, Colonel Wanga, to whom he had just been speaking in French, had muttered in that language; “The fools! They’re much too far away.” Then, of the first two, one had plummeted straight into the ground. The rest has poured out in a bunch then, after a pause, two had come out in a most unmilitary fashion. No sooner had they hit the ground than they, instead of attacking, had shed their kit and most of their rifles and headed in the opposite direction! Alistair’s look of bafflement had been seen by Smuts who had tried to explain.

“Must be a recce party. Ha-ha, I bet they didn’t expect to jump right into the enemy’s lap! Look, they got such a fright; some of them have thrown their rifles away! They know they haven’t got a chance against us.”

“Yes,” Alistair had said, feeling sick in the pit of his stomach. “Is this the first attack by air? I see the plane had no markings. Where do you suppose it operated from?”

Smuts eyes had narrowed, briefly, but all he had said was, “Probably from over the Rhodesian border.”

The crater had echoed with gunfire and General Mucongáve cursed again as it had been apparent that there was still some considerable distance between his men and the fleeing South Africans, if indeed, that’s who they were. Captain Chitamba returned briefly for a mortar and bombs, about which he and Colonel Wanga had an argument. Eventually, Chitamba had left with eight bombs or so and a murderous backwards glance.

“We are very short of ammunition, here at the moment,” the thin Colonel had explained to Alistair. “There is some on its way from the Zambian border and we expected it here last week, but -” he shrugged, as if to say that very little of what was expected actually happened. Alistair had noted that, so far, none of the whites that appeared to be armed had fired a shot. He had seen a Frelimo, shooting at the fleeing men, go down, then a second one. The lighter crack of a pistol had come to their ears. General Mucongáve had demanded to know what was happening. The roar of a grenade came just after that, the only one to be heard, that day.

Alistair, straining his eyes, had seen the faraway ants that were men, strung out, moving slower as they began to climb, and the pursuers closing the gap. Chitamba was directing his mortar crew to set it up at a spot where the ground was not yet too steep, and, Alistair had thought, this would be the end of them. Another victory against the imperialist racists. He would be taken to see the bodies, what was left of them, in their South African uniforms, so that his indignant words would bear witness and stir the world’s indignation at the military intervention etc. etc.

Then he had seen that some sort of resistance had been set up by someone in a cluster of boulders at the foot of the face that the fleeing men were trying to climb. Chitamba’s mortar had fired twice without effect and that set the general to cursing again. He had roared a command to Colonel Wanga who had taken three men and scurried off to the caves to fetch another mortar and four bombs. Even then they had seen that Chitamba’s mortar had been abandoned as the riflemen in the rocks had harried the crew. Someone else – it must have been Lieutenant Mtiwa – had led a party of men in a flanking movement, but it had slowly petered out as their cover thinned and their numbers had diminished.

The ants had been nearly at the top of their climb when Wanga fired. Nasty, shuddered Alistair. Wanga was an excellent mortar man. The bombs crashed onto the face, spewing rock and splinters into the air. General Mucongáve had roared his approval as the top-most ant had been shredded and cast away. Crash, crash again, then silence. General Mucongáve had looked at Wanga.

“Finished, my General,” he had reported, sadly. The general’s lips had thinned in frustration.

“Get some from Chitamba!” he had ordered. A man hurried away. Twenty minutes later, there had been a rush on the mortar and its bombs, lying in the open. They almost made it, but, with a furious battle, it had fizzled out. Alistair had found himself hoping that the South Africans would make a getaway, even though, if they did, that would jeopardise his own position seriously. Damn the Commies and Frelimo for their sneaky little tricks. Sweat had broken out on him in a fresh wave of gut-shrivelling fear. He had tried to keep his face unconcerned, but he knew that Smuts was watching him and he prayed that he had not given himself away.

*****

            Whilst General Mucongáve had issued orders that Wanga take some men and circle the mountain top to try and winkle out the marksmen in the rocks, Smuts had watched helplessly as a figure had gained the safety of the rim of the dent and disappeared. He, too, had been sweating with fear; the whole affair was going sour and there was nothing he could do about it. He had read Alistair’s face like a book and knew that he would have to arrange his death, but that was a mere detail. The publicity side of the plan was less important than Sanderson getting away. He had tried to retain some hope that Sanderson had felt that he had been in no position to fake a surrender; that he hadn’t gone back on the deal; that he would return when he could. Smuts had been sent an expert interrogator to make Sanderson shed his secrets under pressure if the need arose, but it had not been necessary. There was the down-payment, of course, but the expert could not guarantee that they could sift the complete complex firing procedure from Sanderson’s mind with the degree of accuracy required. There had certainly been no intention of paying the balance or allowing Sanderson to live after they had gleaned whatever military secrets to which he in his position had been entrusted.

Through his binocular, Smuts had picked out the stocky figure, crawling up the face. It was easy to pick out the blue arm band. He had begun to feel sick – the chestnuts were well and truly in the fire and he could think of no way to snatch them out. The price for failure would be his own life. There had to be a way of getting Sanderson back; there had to be.

The battle had quietened down to odd shots; each was a quelled attempt to rush the rocks. Suddenly, a white soldier dashed from cover for the mortar, whilst a fusillade of shots banged out, then it was silent. Smuts waited only long enough to be sure that the mortar had fallen into enemy hands then he grasped the general’s shoulder.

“Comrade General, we must get into shelter of the caves before they can use the mortar!” General Mucongáve had stiffened at Smuts’ touch, but he had seen the sense of it. He had looked at his remaining men, shrewdly, his eyes slitted. He snapped an order at a sergeant to take five men up the trail and hold the top in case the South Africans went up. They set off at the double. They were in fact a decoy while the general, Smuts, Alistair and two other men crawled into the caves. The general and Smuts had a hurried conference that they made certain that Alistair couldn’t make out; then Smuts slipped out, again crawling. The general and two men set up a machinegun back from the mouth of the cave.

Smuts was in one of the further caves with the Chinese soldiers when the mortar started. They gripped their AKs and huddled in the dark, waiting.

“No, Captain!” Smuts had whispered in Chinese, “You must not show yourselves. I think we can get them as they come this way, as they surely will, but they must not see you in case either one gets away. No, of course they won’t, but there is also the English journalist. We will take him back to Malawi and arrange an accident there, otherwise someone may come looking for him. We cannot risk that.”

He pretended not to see the Chinese captain smile in the semi-dark. It was a smile of contempt. The man knew that Smuts was not obliged to discuss these matters with him, a mere Captain of Communications in the Chinese Peoples Army. It was fear he could smell on Smuts, and he knew that things had gone radically wrong. It would be Smuts who suffered the consequences. It was the captain’s job to command the four radio operators with him and make sure that their equipment was functional. Well, for now. Smuts thought that the captain probably had other capabilities if he was called upon to use them. He saw the bastard smile again, and he suppressed a shudder. Smuts knew the captain didn’t like him and would find it a pleasure to liquidate him if he got the order to do so.

They were safe in the dark of the cave, but Smuts positioned himself so that he could now make out the two South Africans at the foot of the crater. They had stopped. There was a burp of AK fire and a booming explosion and he had realised that they had destroyed the mortar. The two men made towards the caves. All the watchers tensed as they stopped once more.

In his cave, General Mucongáve would be cursing. The bastards were skirting them, and although they were in range for a long shot, they were rarely in sight. An hour passed before Smuts deemed it safe to come out.

“Is there nothing we can do?” gritted Mucongáve, “I must warn all my men to look for them. They must be heading for the Zambezi.”

Smuts nodded, unhappily. “What is more important, General, is the man, Sanderson. It would be a pity if your men shot him, but he must be stopped. He must be brought back here, alive.

The general grinned without humour. “It seems your plans have come unstuck, Comrade.” There was a sardonic inflection on the last word. “When Wanga returns, he will personally see to it. All the whites that have survived will head for the big river; they will go downstream towards Mutarara, where there is a garrison of Portuguese soldiers. There are some trading posts on the way, but they mostly co-operate with us. They are too afraid not to. We have informers in all the aldeamentos along the way. Few will help them. We will get them all. Will you be going with Colonel Wanga?” The yellow eyes watched his. Smuts knew that he would have to go. Getting Sanderson back was his responsibility. He nodded. It was Frelimo country. There was a good chance that the whites would not get away. His own life depended on it…

“Keep the journalist here, Comrade General. Please guard him well. I must take him back to Malawi and arrange an accident there. He is of no further use to us.”

The general shrugged. It was no concern of his. Smuts guessed that he would be thinking that these foreigners were too clever for their own good. It had been a bad day, he had lost many men; Chitamba and Mtiwa among them, it seemed. The general sent a man down across the crater to look for wounded men and recover such arms and ammunition as he could. It would come, he knew; a free Mozambique, but he wished that it could be without the help of the Chinese or the Russians. They would extract their pound of flesh, he knew, and the price would be dear. Smuts saw him go to his radio with his operator and heard him as he called up four of his bands and gave them their instructions. They would all head for the Mutarara – Bandar road by the shortest route and put out the word as they went. General Mucongáve obviously thought it a nuisance, but it was certain that they would get them all in a day or two. Most were unarmed. These two that had caused the most damage were the biggest problem, but he warned his men to be careful. He had told them that they were Sul Africanos and that they were to leave them where they fell and not to touch their uniforms.

Smuts went to see Alistair. He found him in the shade near the cave mouth, smoking, fairly composed. They kept up the charade for the time being.

“Well, there you are, Mr. Alistair. They’ve never sent paratroopers, before, so it looks as if the South Africans are hotting things up for us. For the true Mozambicans, I mean.”

“Yes,” Alistair said. “You will have to move camp now that they know where your headquarters are.”

Smuts sighed, “I suppose so.”

Not if we stop the South Africans in the bush, he thought savagely, kicking his foot abruptly against a rock with sudden temper. He noticed Alistair shiver. He realised that the man knew that his chances of survival were not much more than nil.

 

TWENTY SEVEN

Deta aircraftThe midmorning sun threw a vicious glare off the planes, the roofs, and the shining tarmac itself, so that the majority of onlookers in the concourse of Manga Airport, Beira, including Morné Brand, wore sunglasses. A DETA Airways Boeing 707 from Lourenço Marques touched down with minimal bounce and little white puffs of smoke exploded from the wheels. In less than seven minutes of its coming to a standstill in front of the terminal, the first passenger was squinting into the glare from the top of the stairs.

Both Bates and Duvenage had been on the flight and although they knew each other well, neither spoke to nor acknowledged the existence of the other. Once through the official formalities that plagued even the internal flights in Mozambique, Bates made for the lounge and, catching sight of Brand, joined him. They swiftly went to the car park where they got into a grey Landrover and followed the taxi that Duvenage took into town to the railway station. In his wing mirror, De Souza, driving, could still see the scooter that had been dogging them since he had picked up Brand and Cecile Cradock earlier that morning. Beira was just not crowded enough to lose it. Eventually, Brand told him to stop trying. It had got too late for mere observation to hinder them. It was too bad that De Souza’s cover was blown, but they were committed to action, now, in a desperate bid to find van Rooyen. The scooter stopped at the kerb as they pulled into the station car park. The mulatto on the scooter tucked his chin into his jacket to make use of the radio he had there.

They watched as Duvenage pulled his soft leather suitcase up under his arm and stepped a few paces back to admire the façade of the old building to give the taxi time to disappear across the bridge over the Rio Chiveve where it entered the docks. There were some twenty vehicles in the forecourt where he stood. There were several Landrovers – it was 4×4 country – but he put his money on a new grey station wagon with curtains in the windows abaft the front seats that had just come in.     He was an athletic man with an easy, springy stride, an even six foot tall with a wiry frame, dark, straight hair, brown eyes, lean face and a quirky mouth. He disappeared into the brightly muralled concourse.

“All a bit pointless,” said Brand, “but I suppose they aught not to know exactly when we leave Beira and in what direction and how many there are of us. Take this guy out before he can use his radio again.”

Bates slipped out of the back seat. He was two inches under six foot, with a barrel-chested and powerful frame. He was blue eyed, had blond very curly hair, and broad face with a wide mouth. He set off smartly towards the road to the front of the scooter. Cecile set off into the station to find Duvenage. The driver, De Souza, was a Latin, short, wiry; wavy black hair. He opened his door and took the long route along the road to the entrance and walked out behind the scooter. The mulatto turned and watched him approach, puzzled, but beginning to look nervous.

Desculpe, o Senhor, mas tenho horas?” He asked for the time. Bates hit him hard from behind and caught him as he fell. They eased him to the sidewalk, took his radio and propped him against the rear bumper of a parked vehicle. Bates bent the mudguard into the wheel and put the scooter on its stand. They sauntered back across the car park to the grey Landrover. Cecile reappeared with Duvenage and the vehicle paused to pick them up as they left. There was no reaction from the few people around. The vehicle circled the traffic island, pausing under the windmill of the little Moulin Rouge for a minute, and then drifted casually past it. The street they were in was flanked by warehouses and workshops, where trucks were being unhurriedly loaded and vehicles unhurriedly repaired. Vehicles were parked half on the pavement and half in the street. The grey station wagon squeezed through and headed out of town.

Duvenage looked around. Beside him sat the good-looking blond girl whom, until now, he had never met. She turned a freckled face towards him and smiled in greeting as Brand introduced them. Up front sat Morné Brand, wearing a Stetson with a leopard skin band. He wore wrap-around dark glasses. Da Souza, whom he had met before, hooted at a trio of ragged street urchins who were rolling bicycle rims down the street. They scuttled away, grinning.

Brand explained the situation. He was almost sure that van Rooyen was not in Beira any more. The instructions to McNeil and Nourse had been to use the tracking transmitters to follow van Rooyen, but since they themselves had been taken prisoner, it stood to reason that they were not following him but making it only possible to indicate to Brand that they themselves were alive and to give their position. The fact that the mercenaries were incarcerated showed that things were coming to a head. With De Souza’s help, watching the movement of supplies and people, they had to deduce that the Barros hunting camp on the Mungari was the only possible place to have a look. It was reasonable to deduce that all players in the know would make sure that they were out of range when van Rooyen detonated his box of tricks, and the camp was such a place. There were no installations within fifty kilometres.

Then, early that morning, both transmitters had rapidly moved west.

“Both Barros’ DC3 and the Cessna logged flight paths for the Mungari camp, yesterday. Today, the speed and line indicated that they were aboard a plane.” Brand said. “Then the transmitters stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere, where no known landing strips exist. That ruled out the Dak landing, but the Cessna could conceivably land on a road. However, when I kept in mind that most of the mercenaries were parachutists, it kept the Dak in the equation and suggested a jump. Still, where is van Rooyen?”

The grey station wagon swung left into the Avenida Massano de Amorim. It was peppered with pedestrians and unhurried cyclists and bumbling motorists that swerved to avoid potholes in the badly tarred surface without any warning, but Brand told De Souza to put his foot down.

Using the horn frequently and his voice more often, De Souza had them out of Beira without any signs of pursuit. As De Souza pointed out, the opposition would have no difficulty working out where they would head for and would radio a warning to the camp on the Mungari. They would know that it was a five hour drive and have plenty of time to prepare for them. Thus, there was only one thing that they could do to catch them by surprise and that was to arrive much earlier than expected.

In half an hour, they were through the little town of Dondo and passing the new Army barracks recently built on the site where, two years ago, two Rhodesian Special Air Services men had buried two canisters. They turned off the tar at the peeling signboard which said ‘Inhaminga – Vila Fontes’. In a further twenty minutes they arrived at a railway siding used for timber extraction where the rail ran parallel with the sand road. In the clearing of the forest next to the siding, was a large shed left over from the saw mill that the siding had served. Behind the shed stood a little five-seater red and yellow Bell turbine helicopter around which the present occupants of the shed stood gawping. The pilot sat behind the controls. As he saw them swing in, he fired up the turbine. De Souza stopped well clear of the machine and switched off. Duvenage and Cecile unpacked the rear of the Landrover, while Brand, De Souza and Bates went to meet the pilot. He slipped out of his seat; skinny, very handsome with long black hair. He seemed a trifle uneasy, but he flashed them a beautiful smile.

“You are the pilot, yes?” he asked Bates who was looking over the Bell in much too professional a way. “How many hours you got?”

“More than two thousand hours,” said Bates and passed him a folder with a licence and a logbook. The Portuguese pilot’s eyebrows shot up.

He took a key and opened the luggage bay under the rear seats for them then handed the keys to Bates. De Souza, in turn gave him an envelope, which the pilot checked, and the Landrover keys. He gave De Souza a Salisbury number where he could be contacted if they needed him earlier than the arranged three days. Duvenage packed the five steel jerry cans of jet paraffin into the compartment along with a carton of food and their personal effects. He and Cecile and De Souza climbed into the rear seats and took a long canister onto their laps. Bates locked up and got behind the controls with Brand beside him. The other pilot waved briefly as the Bell lifted and Cecile thought she saw a look of approval on his face at Bates’ handling. Then, with a harsh chukka-chukka of the rotors, it was turning and the road, rail and Landrover were lost to view. Within minutes, she could see the sea away to her right beyond the green carpet of woodland and they were heading north. Brand noticed that she shivered a little, probably in anticipation of what might lie ahead. It was a bit of the deep-end for the girl, but he was pleased with her, thus far.

Brand had gone over it with her, admitting that they might never find van Rooyen before it was too late. He had considered leaving her behind in Beira in case van Rooyen turned up there, but in the end decided that they keep their forces together, to her obvious relief. Brand had fretted at the delay in waiting for his two men to arrive. She had met neither of them before but Brand said enough to assure her that they were extremely competent agents. He had picked up enough from her seemingly professional questions that she was overly interested and concerned about the possible fate of one Dan McNeil. So she would be thinking of the man, afraid that something had happened to him, and trying to push these thoughts away so as not to impair her professionalism. Brand thought she had better be kept busy. He issued orders.

Duvenage opened a heavy fibreglass case and Cecile helped to assemble the three 7.62 calibre R3 paratrooper rifles with the fold-up stocks. Brand detected a flicker of nervousness from her, which was to be expected. It was just pre-combat nerves. He thought about De Souza. Perhaps the agent had softened with his foreign living, he reflected, but he had a good record and he knew he could be completely ruthless. His mother was Afrikaans; his father was a successful market gardener near Pretoria, an immigrant from Portugal in the thirties. All in all, he had the best team he could expect, but not the resources he would have liked.

As they began to cross open grasslands, they could see huge black smudges on the horizon that turned out to be vast herds of buffalo when they got nearer, grazing on the floodplain, unbothered by the noise of their passing. Brand opened the receiver and a map on his lap. With quick calculations he got the direction of the transmitters. He said nothing, but half an hour later, he triangulated with another direction and pinpointed them. His finger jabbed the map.

“They’re here, on this mountain, Serra da Muambe. What do you know about it, De Souza? It looks like a ring – like a volcano.”

De Souza shook his head. “Never heard of it.” He peered over Brand’s shoulder. “That area is very wild. There are some stores along the Zambezi that still trade with the locals, I understand, but some have been burned and others bribe Frelimo to leave them alone. It is very dangerous. The tracks are mined; the Army won’t go there.”

Brand nodded, frowning. He touched Bates on the shoulder and signalled him to lose height. Bates took the Bell down to tree-top level and turned to follow the river, moving inland. The banks of the river were heavily wooded, but away from it, there were large tracts of floodplain grassland, flecked with borassus palms. Soon, there were patches of dense forest on higher lying ground, increasing in frequency until it was mostly forest with occasional pans of depressed grassland with waterholes at their centres. Here, more buffalo, herds of sable antelope and waterbuck threw up their heads to watch them pass. Then, on a pan at the river’s edge, they saw the Barros hunting camp. There were eight separate bungalows in an L with three on the short leg and the rest on the long. The nearest, as they swooped in to land, was the longest; it had no verandas seemed to be a series of store rooms, workshops and garages. The rest were obviously the safari accommodation in the prime spots, overlooking the river, with the manager and staff quarters further back.

Bates put the craft down neatly just behind the garages to offer some protection should there be any gunfire. He kept the turbine going and stayed at the controls, while Duvenage and De Souza also stayed neat the machine at the corner of the building, their weapons ready but out of sight. They were ordered to keep their eyes on Brand and Cecile as they walked to the larger of the safari buildings. Both the Dakota and the Cessna were standing on the airstrip that stretched across the pan. An elderly black man was leaning on his broom on the veranda watching them.

“Where’s the Boss, Madala?” Brand tried asking in Zulu, hoping the man had worked on the mines at one stage of his life. To his surprise, he replied in English.

“He inside. Boss Senhor Barros, inside.” There was fear and apprehension in the old one’s face. Then Manuela Barros walked through the doorway, her hands in the pockets of her suede jacket. She smiled at them brightly but gave no sign that she recognised Cecile. She walked past the old man and turned in the centre of the veranda.

“I’m Manuela Barros. You would like to see my father? He is inside, busy with some books. Won’t you come in?”

Cecile’s nerves were tighter than a drawn bowstring, but she smiled back and left the talking to Brand; who introduced them as Professor Hanekom and secretary and said that he would indeed like to see Mr Barros. Together, they went up the steps towards her. They passed out of sight of the men at the corner of the garage.

“Don’t move, Brand!” There was an automatic in her hand and ice in her eyes. They froze, too far from her to jump her, knowing that she would not hesitate to shoot.

“Now, see here -” began Brand, relieved that coming here had brought matters out into the open.

“Shut up! Signal your men to come over, to shut down the turbine. Do it now!”

Brand moved to where he could see Duvenage and made a throat-cutting motion, then beckoned. Duvenage disappeared from view. They heard the turbine die then da Souza and Duvenage were walking towards them. Manuela could not see the Bell and would not have known how many there were of them, he hoped. As he turned back to face Manuela, it happened.

The madala hit Manuela over the head with his broom. She sensed it coming, but turned too late and it caught her squarely above the ear. In three strides, Brand took her pistol from her limp hand as she folded. The old man had his hand over his own mouth in surprise at what he had made himself do, his eyes wide.

“Get back!” yelled Brand to his two men out in the open. They turned and fled as a rifle started firing at them. Brand ran along the veranda. The man behind the palm tree and Brand saw each other at the same time but before the man could turn, he got a double tap in the chest and fell against the palm.

“How many men here, Madala?” Brand asked urgently. The old man was crouching against the wall next to him.

“Five with Senhor Barros, Sah, and two daughter, this one and Miss Rosa. They lock Senhor Barros and Miss Rosa in a room. Is too much bad!”

Manuela was sitting up, nursing a split ear that coursed blood through her fingers. Cecile was watching over her with a Beretta from a safe distance. Manuela began to curse the old man in Portuguese, then Cecile in English. Cecile said nothing, but eyed her warily, guessing how dangerous she was.

Duvenage and De Souza, now with their R3s, came at a weaving run, bending low while Bates covered both them and the chopper from the corner of the workshop. Brand took a deep shaky breath and stepped through the doorway. It was empty for a second then a man stepped into it, carrying a light bag in one hand and a pistol in the other. Brand had a brief impression that he was thin, tall and dark complexioned as he simultaneously saw the pistol in his hand whip upwards. Brand snapped off two shots at him before he could fire.

The man was thrown backwards, the travel bag skidding across the floor. He slid down the panelled wall and tried to lift the weapon again. Brand’s finger tightened on the trigger, but he knew the man’s strength and life were running out. The pistol sagged, the man sighed as it slipped from his lifeless fingers. Brand swallowed, his heart hammering painfully. This was the price of being back in the field again.

“Who’s there?” A quavering woman’s voice; English with a Portuguese accent.

“Miss Barros? Where are you?” Brand thought that the voice came from a room at the end of the passage. “We have come to set you free, we are friends.” Maybe. There was the sound of a lock being disengaged then the door half opened and a pale face with big brown eyes and black hair turned towards him.

“Who’s that?” Brand pointed at the man sitting in the passage. She looked and gulped.

“My father’s pilot. Is he…dead?”

Brand looked into the beautiful big eyes and nodded.

“Who is in there with you?” He could see two men behind her, a heavy, paunchy man with a beard streaked with grey, and an older man, slim, tired-looking, in a cream safari suit and a maroon paisley cravat. He recognised Barros from photographs that he had studied.

Senhor Barros,” the paunchy man grabbed the other by the arm. “Tell this man that they forced me to help them! What could I do with those pigs, Ribeiro and Campos watching me all the time? Before God, I-”

Barros looked disdainfully down on the hand that gripped his arm until the other removed it, and then ignored him.

“My name is Barros.” He met Brand’s gaze squarely. “Who are you?”

“Hanekom, South African Bureau of State Security. Normally, I would apologize for my intrusion, but I think that in these circumstances, you won’t object to our coming uninvited. I am hoping that you’ll give me such information as I require, but firstly, I must be sure that nobody is going to shoot us whilst we’re talking. Will you come with me to identify a body and tell us who else is around that’ll give us trouble.” He stood aside for Barros. As he shut the door on Reis and Rosa, he told them to remain there for the time being. Duvenage came in a side door and reported that the place seemed to be deserted, not even servants.

“There’s only the old man who cooks for us and does some light housekeeping,” said Barros. “My daughter, Manuela, sent the rest of them away. My mechanic thought something was wrong and refused to go. Da Silva shot him…That’s my son-in-law… Everything seems to have gone… There were two men around, always armed, they should be about.” He obviously did not know what to explain.

On the veranda, he stopped in front of his daughter. Manuela was now sitting at a low drinks table, her hand over her ear, staring across the pan.

“Are you alright, Manuela? Have they hurt you?” He asked, gently, in their own tongue. She ignored him, only her mouth tightened a little, thinning the normally full lips. Her father watched her for a moment, puzzled, hurt, and then followed Brand to look at the body against the palm tree.

“Ribeiro.” Barros turned away. “It leaves only that rat, Campos, to account for.” He beckoned the old man, told him gently to bring beer and glasses. The madala nodded nervously and slipped away. Brand instructed Duvenage to take over the guarding of Manuela then he, Cecile and Barros went into the lounge. De Souza arrived to report that he had seen nobody. Brand warned him about the missing Campos and told him to keep his eyes peeled and to tell Bates to stay where he was.

“Where are the South Africans, where is this da Silva, where is that Sanderson man?” Brand asked Barros.

“Da Silva was Rosa’s husband, very charming, but I never liked him. But let me start at the beginning.” The old man brought a tray of beer bottles and glasses and an opener. Barros waved him away and poured for them himself. “I was born in Beira, I grew up here. I am surely the wealthiest man in Mozambique. I have plantations – tea, sugar, coconuts, cashews; a chain of general dealers, sawmills which export timber; I have interests in shipping and a lot more besides. All this is in Mozambique, very little outside.

“I am Mozambican first, Portuguese second. I would give my life for this country, if I thought it would keep it in safe, responsible hands for future generations of Mozambicans. Two years ago, I started to recruit men who would help to smash Frelimo. The Army was sinking into apathy, when, what the country needed was a concerted effort at this crucial time. Some of the men that I recruited were Army men and they were able to step up the pressure a little, but there were too many that would do nothing, given the choice. Defend only, not attack. Eventually, I tried to start my own army and bribed the regulars to leave them alone. Then Manuela persuaded me to recruit some South Africans, some of whom were ex-Congo mercenaries. This I did. But Manuela had her own plans for them. I had no idea that Manuela and Rosa’s husband were Communists…” His throat moved, constricting with emotion. He took a swallow of beer. Brand and Cecile sipped theirs, but said nothing. He had told them nothing new, as yet.

“In fact, the South Africans did very well and I was hopeful that we could swing the tide with them, if I could also get support from the local population. This was the difficulty because, although several chiefs supplied me with information on Frelimo’s movements, I could not rely on them when Frelimo threatened their people. Then, about two weeks ago, one of the South Africans came to see me in my apartment in my hotel, the Zambeze, when they were back for a break. He was their leader, an excellent man to have. O’Donnell was his name. He told me that they could not go on, unless they had some sort of air support and they did not have to dodge our Army, as well. I said that I could not guarantee non-interference from the Army, but I would arrange to have a plane on call and perhaps a helicopter for medi-vac purposes. Then da Silva came in, told him to get out, and said he needed to speak to me urgently, alone.” His mouth twisted with remembered humour.

“O’Donnell threatened to knock his block off, but I asked him to leave. Manuela came and the two of them told me I must not interfere with the South Africans, that they had plans for them that did not concern me. I was to keep my mouth shut and stay in the hotel or they would cut Rosa’s throat! Of course, I could not believe…Her own sister! To convince me, Manuela brought Rosa in and beat her up. Karate! Slammed her about until she lay bleeding on the floor while da Silva kept a gun on me!” Barros downed his beer in a couple of swallows and poured another. When he continued, his voice was calm, again.

“An hour later, O’Donnell fell from the balcony to his death. He must have been pushed, but one of his men saw it happen and insists it was an accident. I can’t believe that! The rest of the South Africans were locked away until they brought them here a couple of days ago. Another South African, Sanderson, his name was, was here with Manuela and da Silva -”

“Sanderson! Where is he now?” demanded Brand, his voice hard.

“An associate of Manuela’s, I was led to believe. I met him a couple of month’s ago. He was helping her to recruit mercenaries, she said. I didn’t like him, he was very arrogant. I didn’t try to find out more about him. I trusted Manuela… I should have looked into it, it might have given me a clue what Manuela and her communist friends were up to. I understand he had something to sell to the Communists, I don’t know what. Manuela trained him to jump from an aircraft, here. He and the others left this morning to jump somewhere. Manuela said the less I knew, the better, when I asked. But, when the Dakota came back, Manuela said that everything had gone wrong and that da Silva had fallen out of the Dakota, to his death. Sometimes I wish it had been Manuela that fell without a parachute! Mother of Christ, that I could have spawned such a devil! She is utterly without soul or conscience…” Barros was close to breakdown then, but in an uncomfortable minute or two, he pulled himself together. Cecile felt an overwhelming pity for the man and surreptitiously wiped the corner of her eye.

“The pilot,” Brand asked, gently. “Was he one of them?”

“I think so. It was Manuela who persuaded me to take Pereira on about a year ago. He was a good pilot and gave me no trouble. Reis, the man you met, was the camp manager. He is really a good man, but he has no balls – excuse me, Senhora”, he said to Cecile, who was still wearing her fake wedding ring. “No backbone. He accepted a bribe to help keep Rosa and me here as prisoners.”

“Were the South Africans wearing uniforms?” asked Brand, shrewdly.

“I didn’t see then, but Reis told me they were dressed as South African paratroopers, armed, but their ammunition was, how do you say, false?”

“Dummy,” supplied Brand. “Blanks. You have no idea where they were going to drop?  Their target? I have information that the place is a mountain, marked on my map as Serra Muambe. Do you know it? Would it be suitable as a Frelimo camp?”

“In my youth, I hunted there,” Barros said, thoughtfully. “It is an extinct volcano, there is water there… It would make an excellent place to hide. I don’t know why I never thought of it before…”

Brand offered him a lit match for the cigarette that he was going to light and in turn lit his foul pipe. Barros did not seem to notice. He leaned forward, pleading.

“Now, you will question my daughter. I beg you not to harm her. Whatever she has done, she believes in. But she is my flesh and blood…”

“That is up to her, Mr. Barros. My primary concern is the man who calls himself Sanderson and the threat he constitutes to my country. If I can, I shall help the other South Africans, but they brought this on themselves when they joined you as mercenaries. Beyond that -”

“But our common enemy is Communism, Mr. Hanekom! Can you not get at the men behind my daughter? Get them to release their hold on her? I will undertake to see that she has nothing more to do with them!”

“If, as you say, she believes in what she has done, then it is a doctrine that has a hold on her, not men.” Brand spoke with sympathy, but not with hope. “Do you have a radio here?”

“In both planes, of course, and one in the room next door. Why do you ask?”

“It is conceivable that your daughter has been in touch with this Frelimo camp, if there is one there, and may know what happened after the drop and what happened to Sanderson and the others. It is time I talked to her.” Brand got to his feet as De Souza came back.

“I’ve been through the whole camp. No sign of anybody. Perhaps this Campos has taken to the bush?” De Souza said. Brand asked Barros what sort of man he was.

“Yes, he is the sort of man that would run when things, how do you say, get hot?” Barros permitted himself a wan smile. “Yes, he would take to the bush.”

“Okay, Mr. Barros, thanks for your help. I’m going to ask that Duvenage watch to see that you don’t do anything foolish while we talk to your daughter. Would you show him the radio? Perhaps one of your Army contacts could use the information about the possible Frelimo camp on Serra Muambe? Wait until we give the go-ahead before you talk to them. Please prepare us some food, if you would be so kind and we shall need to spend the night here, it is too late to try and find Sanderson today, but we must be away at first light, tomorrow.”

Barros nodded. “Just be as gentle as you can with the girl, that’s all I ask. If you are not, I shall find a way of making you pay for it.” Their eyes locked for a moment and Brand knew it was no idle threat. It would not help to antagonise the man without cause, or he would have to spend the rest of his life watching his back.

Brand told Cecile to be watchful and to let Reis and Rosa out of their room, but not to leave the building. On the veranda, the tableau had not changed. De Souza joined them. Duvenage went with Barros. Brand went to Manuela.

“Miss Barros, we need to ask you some questions. You will please come with us.”

Before he could duck, there was warm spittle running down his cheek. He held his temper and wiped it off. “Take her to the workshop, De Souza. She knows karate, I understand, so be cautious. I’ll take your rifle.” He took the R3 from De Souza, who moved in on the girl. He left his guard down just enough to tempt her and she flashed a stiff-fingered blow at his throat. She didn’t see him move but the blow missed and her arm was suddenly behind her back, pinioned, her shoulder muscles in agony. She sucked for breath with a hiss. Brand realised, when he saw De Souza move, that he was far from soft. He led Manuela away to the workshop, near where the Bell waited with Bates in attendance. Brand brought him up to date, warned him about Campos and told him to refuel the helicopter. Then he returned to the workshop.

There were two Toyota Landcruisers fitted with wooden benches on the back for game viewing, and a swamp tractor with enormous balloon tyres that reached above Brand’s head. There were two short-wheelbase Landrovers, bare to the chassis in front, without their engines that lay on a greasy piece of tarpaulin. Along the walls were racks of spares, nuts and bolts and rusty hardware. In one corner was a portable welding plant and a forge. Near the latter was a huge blacksmith’s vice set in a concrete block. De Souza was holding Manuela near the vice.

“We’d better gag her,” he said, conversationally, “We wouldn’t like to upset her father with her screams. Bring me some of that rag from the bench, would you? And some flex to tie her arms and legs. She is such a beautiful girl; it is going to be a pity to spoil her face. You know, I thought that if she doesn’t talk with a bit of pressure in the right places, then we could take off her nose in the vice. What do you think?”

“No difference to me, George,” Brand said indifferently, “It’s not my nose. What about some acid? Some in those old batteries, over there.” He fetched some flex from the racks and the oily rag.  De Souza applied a little pressure as Manuela struggled. Her back arched in excruciating spasms and she offered no resistance as Brand tied her wrists together behind her back, then her ankles to the concrete block of the vice. Her dark eyes blazed her hatred and she clenched her jaw as Brand approached with the filthy rag. De Souza’s square fingers moved to her neck. Suddenly she screamed, but Brand choked it off with the rag. He held it in while De Souza tied it in place with some electrical tape. She struggled awhile as the men stood back to admire their handiwork., then tears oozed out of her eyes and she her shoulders began shake with sobs.

“Do you think she wants to say something to the Capitalistic Pigs, Mr. Hanekom?” De Souza lit a cigarette. Brand shook his head and reached for his pipe.

“How can she? She hasn’t been asked any questions, yet. Perhaps I’d better ask them now so that she can nod her head when she’s ready to answer them.”

“She’s going to have difficulty nodding with her nose in the vice.”

Ja, true. But she’s a resourceful girl; I dare say she’ll make a plan. Here are the questions, Miss Barros. Why were the South African mercenaries of your father’s in the Dakota and why did they jump over Serra Muambe? Why did Sanderson jump with them? What do you intend doing with the information that Sanderson is selling you? Is there a Frelimo camp at Muambe? How many radios do they have at this camp and who operates them? Were you in contact with this camp this morning, either during your flight or after the drop? What went wrong with the drop? Where is Sanderson now? Where are the other South Africans? Who is your contact at Muambe? What is your chain of command, your superior, their superior? Of course, I shall probably think of more questions as we go along, but these will do to start with.”

“She is going to have difficulty breathing with her nose in the vice,” De Souza observed.

“True. The gag in her mouth. Ah, well, a little nod will allow her to breathe again.’ Brand looked speculatively at his prisoner. Manuela was struggling with every fibre in her body. Brand cranked open the jaws of the huge vice. “Do you think she understands my English, George? Perhaps you should translate it all into Portuguese. I’m sure she’s not nodding.”

“You’re right,” said De Souza, applying his thumbs to the sallow column of her neck. The pain shot into her head and she tried to pull away, but down, down went her nose towards the vice until her face was between the gaping steel jaws. Brand sank to his knees to look at the no-longer beautiful eyes that were bulging in terror as Brand began to wind the handle.

Manuela’s head jerked up and down so that she bruised her cheek on the rusted steel. She was nodding.

To be continued…

 

 

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The BARROS PAWNS – Serial Episode #8 Ch. 22-24

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 22-24.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

moz74landmine1TWENTY TWO

The short-wheelbase Landrover wound along what was no more than a game trail. It was a little after six in the morning. The air was fresh and cool, the sun had only just risen, a red orb, as yet without power, but still promising a hot day to come. Alistair clutched the dashboard to stop being bashed against Smuts who was driving and the lean black man in the left hand seat. He was dressed in a ragged pair of camouflage overalls, an Avtomat Kalashnikov 47 was held, butt down, between his knees. His footwear was

rubber and canvas combat boots, both showing his sockless feet through cracks. He smelt as if he had not bathed for days, which was true.

They had set out in the dark and it was evident that Smuts had been this way before. At a place that still seemed to have no discernable landmarks, Smuts stopped and flashed his headlights. Three men materialised out of the dark, all armed. The one who introduced himself as Lieutenant Mtiwa in passable English, got in front, replacing the other man who joined the other two in the open back.

“Any action lately, Lieutenant?” Smuts asked when they were on their way again.

Mtiwa hawked and spat out of the window, then grinned, showing large even teeth.

“Too much, every day. All over, we put mines, shoot cotton trucks. Last week we mortar Chamba; kill plenty Portuguese soldier, there. Portuguese too much scare.” He laughed uproariously.

“Seen anything of the South Africans, Lieutenant?” Smuts eased his way between two large boulders then twisted up a low hill to avoid a gully that had appeared. Mtiwa looked blank. His grin disappeared and he scratched his head.

“When last did you see any South African soldiers?” prompted Smuts, just a tiny touch sharply. Mtiwa’s face suddenly lit up.

“Ah, yes. Maburu! Yes, they give us too much trouble. Plenty trouble. My men say they see some two days ago to the west. Near Rhodesia border. Last month, they kill eight of my men at their camp.” His voice had taken on a flat tone, as he squinted at the top of the windscreen to get it just right. “Some wounded, too. Those Sul Africanos, they give too much trouble!”

“Don’t the Portuguese soldiers give you much trouble, Lieutenant?” Alistair offered his cigarettes around, also out the open window to the soldiers in the back. They thanked him in Portuguese. Mtiwa grinned again as he bent his head to the light in Alistair’s cupped hand.

“No problem, the Portuguese. They are afraid, too much. Only the Fleches, the Commandos, they are son of a bitch. They cut off ears of dead men and put in the pickle. Too much son of bitch! They fight pretty good! We go round the Fleches when we find them.” He was lost for awhile in recollections of the terrible Commandos.

“Why are we stopping?” asked Alistair as Smuts pulled up in a shallow ravine. The soldiers clambered off the back and disappeared over the nearest ridge. Smuts told him in a low voice that they had gone to ask their fellows if there were troops patrolling the Tete-Beira railway line that was nearby. The woodland was quietly raucous with the sound of birds and insects which Alistair found very pleasant and he could almost forget why he had come. After half an hour, the men came back to report in Sena to Mtiwa and he laughed.

“Okay, we go.” Mtiwa said. Smuts started the Landrover and pulled out of the ravine, heading south again, over a ridge. The lines lay before them, winding through the hills, as incongruous as the vehicle in this wild country. With a couple of lurches, they were across the tracks and into the bush on the other side.

“Stop here,” he instructed, getting out to stretch his legs. He cleared his nose with a deft movement of thumb and forefinger then leaned against the vehicle and signed for Smuts to switch the engine off. They stood fifty metres from the lines that they had crossed. All was quiet. Presently they could hear the train as it approached from the west, from Tete. The ground shook with ever increasing violence, and then it rushed by, visible in flashes through the trees, the beefy Portuguese driver leaning from his caboose, squinting down the track, the smoke pouring back thickly along the way and the shuffer-shuffer of the engine a noise that Alistair had not heard since he was in India three years ago.

“He Gomes,” Mtiwa grinned, delightedly. “Only three drivers not too much afraid to ride this line! We blow his brother-in-law up near his store at Chuéze!” He chortled. Smuts frowned, thinking that it was hardly the thing to mention to an English journalist that they were attacking civilians. He was reaching for the starter button when it happened.

There was a boom, like a close vicious thunderclap. As was usual, the engine had three flat wagons loaded with sandbags ahead of it. The mine layers had allowed for these in the detonating mechanism and it was the engine itself that took the blast. Gomes was thrown clear as the engine rose like a rearing horse under him, but the fireman was less fortunate. He was flung against the steel cab and as the fire-box door opened, a river of ruby coals was hurled over his legs. The engine left the rails and ploughed down a steep ravine, dragging its tender and five coaches with it, gouging the earth and snapping tree trunks and branches like gunfire. Only the guards van remained on the track as it came to a halt in a cloud of dust. After a long moment’s silence, from the guards van, came a single burst of gunfire. The Frelimo men on the side of the tracks returned this with gusto but without much luck as several more guns spoke back from the smashed coaches as survivors popped up like moles from the skyward windows and raked the bush.

Mtiwa had run to the tracks to watch the battle happening three hundred metres away from the place that they had crossed. Alistair prepared to follow but Smuts restrained him.

“Don’t be a bloody fool! What do you think would happen if Europeans were seen with Frelimo? They’ll think you are a Russian instructor or something and other countries will take that as an excuse to step in.”

Alistair lit a cigarette with shaking hands as the rattle of machineguns joined the snap of pistols, the crack of hunting rifles and the blast of shotguns as the civilians who were able added their contribution to the firepower of the troops. Mtiwa returned, still grinning.

“Too good!” he said as he stepped in, “Now, we go!”

They headed westward, now, almost parallel to the railway lines, but slowly moving away. The country became flatter and dryer, dense mopane woodland with shallow depressions of black clay that were obviously pig and buffalo wallows in the wet season. Here and there were ridges of rounded, water worn stones which Smuts skirted. The day wore on; became a furnace. Sweat dribbled down their bodies. The engine boiled and they were forced to stop for half an hour to let it cool. They refilled the radiator from a jerry can. A big river loomed up ahead, heralded by the line of huge riparian trees. Still without guiding from Mtiwa, Smuts headed through them to the bank. There was no track that Alistair could see. He mopped his face for the umpteenth time and held on tight as Smuts changed down and took the little vehicle over the bank and into the river. It was dry, a ribbon of sand and rounded stones. A band of wild pig awoke from siesta in the shade of some deadfall and dashed down the bed, squealing. Smuts pulled the low-ratio knob and the sturdy vehicle struggled gamely through the sand after the pigs. From time to time, they skirted a muddy pool, the edges of which were churned with game tracks. Once, they rounded a bend and almost ran into four buffalo that were crossing the river. Smuts braked hard and the Landrover sank into the sand. The buffalo lumbered up the bank with the soldiers following them in their sights without firing. They could still hear the crashing of their passage when Mtiwa ordered them to start digging at the wheels. It was twenty minutes before they were moving again, but the strain made the engine boil once more. Smuts stopped on a harder patch and waited for it to cool.

Shortly after they got going again, their river was joined by another one from the right, also dry but mostly a bed of jagged rock and little sand. Smuts gunned the engine over some flat rocks and the little truck tore up the further bank. They had crossed the Rio Minjova and now the going really got rough. There were jagged ridges of lava, everywhere, but at least there were signs of some attempt to clear a track through the scrubby mopane. They crested a rise and before them lay another river but the trees that lined it were less vigorous than those of previous rivers due to the rocky terrain. At its edge were a string of huts, almost hidden amongst the vegetation. Smuts hooted a signal and several men appeared from amongst the boulders, all armed and in camouflage kit. Grins split their black faces. They waved. Mtiwa shouted something at them and the Landrover ground down to the huts.

“As far as we can go by car,” Smuts said tiredly and switched off. They got out and stretched. Smuts handed Alistair the water bottle that hung from the front wing mirror of the vehicle and the journalist drank greedily. He was hardly able to take more than two bites from the ham roll he was given from the food box in the rear; the heat had taken away his appetite. The sun was at its zenith. Smuts drank more water then unrolled a sleeping bag and placed it in the shade.

“We’ll have a bit of a siesta and go on when it is cooler,” he told Alistair, “we are heading for that mountain over there. Mount Muambe. It’s about five kilos to the camp, but we’ll take it easy.” He looked with some scorn at the journalist’s plump figure. He lay down on the bag and seemed to fall asleep immediately. Alistair likewise got out a sleeping bag and lay on it. The villainous looking Frelimo retired to their huts and silence fell on the small camp. The huts were simple; mopane branch frames covered with grass. Alistair did not try to sleep, knowing that he would feel awful when he awoke, if he did so. He lay looking at the mountain. It rose above the surrounding bush by no great amount. It seemed to have a flattish top with a dent a third of the way along on the left. The sides were all rock with only the barest suggestion of vegetative covering here and there, as in the dent.

At three o’clock, Smuts sat up and looked at his watch. He shouted, “Lieutenant!” and rolled his sleeping bag. Mtiwa stumbled from a hut, yawning. He, in turn, shouted to his men. These emerged and shouldered the kit from the Landrover. Mtiwa, six of his soldiers, Smuts and Alistair in single file took a path leading through the steep sided river and up the far bank, heading for the mountain. The trail was well worn; the camps had obviously been here for several months.

“Don’t the Portuguese Army bother you here, Lieutenant?” panted Alistair. The stringy black man grinned back at him.

“Nothing bother,” he replied. “They know we in the area, but they cannot see us. Sometime they fly over with plane but we hide away. Near Tete, we shoot down one helicop’ last year when they look, now they afraid for look.”

Alistair saved his breath for the walk and only grunted a reply. The path followed a steep ridge that rose windingly to the mountain. For him the mountain seemed to get no nearer. The ridge led to a point just to the right of the dent. Here the path mounted boulders as giant steps and curved left to the dent, itself. Smuts called a halt to give Alistair a breather. He needed it. Sweat ran into his eyes and his chest heaved, raspingly. The rocky world swam around him. As he slumped to a boulder, he nearly fell off it. His thighs ached and he felt them begin to tighten with cramp when he’d been sitting for only a few minutes and had to massage them.

At length, they set off again and the going was better as the path levelled off a bit in the floor of the steep sided valley that was the dent. It was more of a split in the mountain that a valley. The floor began to dip down and turn to the right. Alistair had been stumbling down the steepening path for some while before he became aware that he was in the crater of an extinct volcano and the mountain through which he had passed circled around on either side to meet four thousand metres ahead of him at a similar dent .   The floor of the valley was covered with boulders and twisted trees. The inner walls of the crater seemed to be riddled with holes, probably formed by bubbles in the solidifying lava. The party was met by two armed soldiers who regarded the two whites with interest at first, but soon they were joking with their comrades. Alistair caught the word Inglesi several times. He ignored them, only too glad to be walking downhill. Then they were at the camp.

It was simply a series of caves at the foot of a cliff. Troops sat around on the ground or on boulders, some playing cards or a game like checkers with beer-bottle tops on a board made by a drawing of lines on the ground. A bald, paunchy man came out to meet them. He roared at the men who scrambled to their feet in some semblance of attention. He peeled a smart salute off at the visitors and beamed. He gabbled something in rapid Portuguese for a minute or two, then he gestured at Smuts. The South African translated. More men emerged from the caves.

“He is General Mucongáve and he bids you welcome and hopes you will be comfortable. He says that he personally will take you to the place where his men are engaging the South African insurgents, the day after tomorrow, when you have rested. He wishes to introduce you to…” the general indicated two of the men behind him, “Colonel Wanga…” a tall, intelligent looking individual with spectacles perched on an unusually aquiline nose – a touch of Arab? “and Captain Chitamba,” a squat, immensely powerful man with a flat, cruel looking face. Wanga smiled and offered his hand, which Alistair took. Chitamba scowled and then followed suit. “The General thanks us for bringing him some beer and suggests that we drink to the speedy liberation of Mozambique.”

The general growled at the men who had come in with the provisions from the Landrover and they produced three cases of 2M beer. Mtiwa gave instructions for Alistair’s and Smuts’ stretchers, sleeping bags and hold-alls to be taken to a cave near the officer’s quarters.

Men brought low stools for the officers and visitors. Beers were opened, luke

warm. The general gabbled on. Alistair found that, after the second half-litre, he was quite relaxed and the tight knot of fear in the pit of his stomach had eased, somewhat. He found that Colonel Wanga spoke passable French and they were able to communicate quite well without any help from Mtiwa or Smuts. Wanga told him that he was destined to become the Minister of Education when Mozambique won her independence.

The sun slowly slipped behind the further lip of the mountain, some four kilometres away. Smoke arose from a hole high on the cliffs, a natural chimney for the cookhouse cave, some fifty metres below it. Stew arrived with potatoes that Smuts had brought with them. The two whites ate with utensils, the Mozambicans with their fingers. They drank more beer. Alistair passed his cigarettes around, hoping that there would not be many takers as he was getting low. He saw men carrying food down the path that followed the cave-infested cliffs. The men went into a cave about eighty metres away, almost too far for him to see in the gathering gloom. The last light of day reflected off a metal strip that wound up the cliff above that cave.

“Odd place for a lightning conductor,” thought Alistair, his usually acute sense of curiosity dulled by the vast quantities of beer that he had consumed. He gave it no further thought but relaxed, his back against a boulder, only half listening to what Wanga was saying. Mucongáve was chatting to Smuts; Chitamba spoke in low tones to Mtiwa. From the tone of the captain’s voice, Alistair decided that, whatever he was saying, it was not very nice.

They turned in at nine o’clock. The cave in which the white men found themselves was low of ceiling, but there were several holes in it, smaller tunnels, that gave it ventilation and although the through-draft carried with it the smell of unwashed bodies, it was not unbearable. With a short pondering on what the following days would have to offer, he fell asleep.

It was still dark when he felt someone shaking him. Where, in God’s name, was he? After a moment’s panic, he remembered. He heard Smuts’ voice and felt something hot touching his hand.

“Have some tea. Hope you don’t mind some condensed milk.”

He sat up and sipped the sweet liquid, gratefully. He heard a match scrape as Smuts lit a candle. He saw that Smuts was already dressed. He wondered how long the man had been up. His watch showed five past five. Smuts paced the floor, impatiently. Alistair wondered what was bothering the man. His mouth tasted awful and his head felt woolly, but he had no headache, thank goodness. He lit a cigarette.

“Why are you up so early? I thought we were going to rest, today?”

“Oh, go back to sleep, if you want to!” Smuts snapped. Then, in a gentler voice as if to take the edge off his tone, “No need for you to get up, yet.” Abruptly, he turned and went out. When he’d left, Alistair felt very much alone. He sensed that the neighbouring caves were now empty of the men who had slept there during the night. Perhaps they had gone off on a raid, to lay mines or set an ambush or whatever they did. When he found that he couldn’t stand the silence any longer, he sat up again and swung his legs off the stretcher. They ached from yesterday’s march. He dressed slowly, wondering where he could get water to shave and wash. Like a genie, a soldier appeared with a tin basin of warm water. Alistair shaved by the flickering light of the candle using a hand mirror from his hold-all. He put his towel away and went outside.  Oddly, it seemed that Smuts was waiting for him.

A troop of men were gathered around Captain Chitamba who was checking their equipment in the pre-dawn light. For the most part, they were ragged and gaunt, but their weapons were clean and, oddly, there was a look of anticipation to their faces. Then Chitamba stopped and cupped his hand to his ear.

Um aeroplano! Depressa!” he yelled. His troop scattered down the valley over a distance of two hundred metres and melted into cover with their rifles. Smuts grabbed Alistair’s arm and led him into a cluster of big boulders where the general and Colonel Wanga were already crouching. The captain had gone with his men. Alistair remembered that he had not seen Mtiwa yet that day and wondered where he was. It was only then that he heard the drone of an aircraft that had seemed to have triggered all this activity.

“Why don’t we hide in the caves?” Alistair thought he was asking the obvious.

“Shut up!” Smuts snapped, his eyes glued to the far off dent in the crater’s lip. Alistair, too, looked that way. There it was, a silhouette against the lightening sky, a twin- engined aircraft that he recognised, a Douglas DC3 at a height of about four hundred metres, heading straight for them.

 

TWENTY THREE

The cold morning air blasted in at the doorless hole, causing them to huddle in their thin battle-dress. In the cabin, the only man dressed for the occasion was da Silva in his sheepskin coat. He had strapped himself in opposite the door at the rear, facing forward so that he could cover the prisoners. There was a safe gap between him and the man next to him on his, the starboard, wall. This was Rafe Schulman who crouched, wondering how to get his hands on the Portuguese, but they were all shackled and would not be released until just before the drop. Next to him was Jan de Groot, depressed but not defeated. There just had to be a way out of this mess. He glanced at big Piet Visagie next to him. Piet was pale in the weak cabin light, nerves drum tight.

“Our only hope,” he spoke to Jan in an undertone in Afrikaans, “is to hook up and go as soon as they free us. Drop as far from the target as possible -”

“Shut up! No speaking!” da Silva shouted over the drone of the engines.

Blair, nearest the door on the opposite side, suddenly yelled, “Fuck off, you bitch-balled son of a syphilitic whore!” and burst into bawdy song at the top of his voice:

Bang away at Lulu, bang her good and strong! and the rest of them joined him, yelling in desperate abandon. Da Silva went a strangled purple with rage and tried to get up, but his straps held him back. He shook the G3 at them and screamed for them to stop it but their voices only rose in volume and the delight at his frustration gave them courage, shook off the mantle of despair that had settled over them. McNeil, three metres from Sanderson, who covered them from where he sat at the cockpit bulkhead, yelled the same idea that Piet had told Jan into Nourse’s ear. Geoff passed it to John Blair. It was their only chance and it wasn’t much, but if they acted simultaneously, they might not get in each other’s way. They would have to chance being shot right here on the plane but McNeil was counting on the fact that both Sanderson and da Silva would be reluctant to spray the cabin with bullets in case they hit each other or the pilots. Opposite McNeil, Geoff saw that Muller seemed also to have some sort of plan. Maybe he was thinking the same thing, because he leaned against Theo Theunissen and suggested something in his ear. Theo was looking so strained that Muller appeared to notice with a shock that the man seemed to be near breaking point. Geoff was also surprised that he was not even singing with the others but, with clenched jaws, was staring at the space between McNeil and Sanderson, blankly. He must have heard because he shook his head and muttered something that left Muller with a baffled expression.

“Snap out of it, Theo! We can do it!” Muller shouted. Even Geoff heard that.

Theunissen only shook his head again. Muller gritted his teeth in anger and joined the raucous singing. Geoff saw him kick Dan’s ankle and when Muller had caught Dan’s eye, he flicked a glance at Sanderson and, baring his teeth, made a snapping bite. McNeil nodded, almost imperceptibly.

They kept up the shouted songs for awhile, ranging from The Good Ship Venus to Eskimo Nell until da Silva no longer reacted.

Geoff was thinking about Sanderson and wondering how badly the South African government wanted him. He tried to recall what Brand had said and there seemed to be no doubt that it was a dead-or-alive situation. He was certain that Brand was in no position to do anything about Sanderson, now, although he must know where they were, if the pens were still working. Of course, the range could also be a problem. He could only pray that the batteries, or whatever they worked on, still had the power to cover the ever-widening distance. There seemed to be only one solution. He or Dan must kill Sanderson, themselves. He shuddered. He remembered what Dan had told him

McNeil had killed, no, perhaps, executed was a better word, another man besides the deserter. McNeil had been in charge of the small garrison of mercenaries in a little village in the northern Congo, near Aba on the Sudanese border. His opposite number in the Congolese Army had been a cruel individual who was using his position to operate a protection racket on the locals. McNeil also believed that he had been in contact with the rebels, but was unable to prove it. Often, too, Dan had found that he had countermanded his orders. One evening, he had invited him to walk to the river with him to see if they could catch a canoe-load of arms that McNeil said was being smuggled in from across the border. Dan told him what a son-of-a-bitch he was and shot him in the face. He pitched the body into the river for the crocodiles and emptied his pistol into the surrounding bush before running back to the village to tell of the rebel attack and his narrow escape.

But this was different. Sanderson, or van Rooyen, was a fellow countryman. Still, he doubted that the man would hesitate to kill him or McNeil if the shoe was on the other foot. Sanderson was also jumping, willingly, so he was not expecting to be shot by Frelimo. How would they know the difference? Would he wear something that would make him stand out from the rest? Manuela must be in contact with the enemy, by radio, but where was the sense of delivering some South African Paratroopers – as the uniforms that they wore testified – into the hands of Frelimo? Not for ransom; they could have done that without the jump, so it must be a spectacle for someone. They would be seen, as members of the South African armed forces, to be interfering in the internal affairs of another country, something denied repeatedly by the South African Government to the world. Here it would be proved that they were liars. And they, the soldiers, would be too dead to deny the fact. Nourse grimaced. Sanderson would be the only one ‘captured’, perhaps, and admit that they were acting on orders from the S.A.D.F. High Command. If he was on the right track, Geoff wondered who the show was being put on for. He glanced at Theo to see if he could elicit some support from the tough old mercenary, but Theunissen seemed to have withdrawn into himself of late and was not communicating. Geoff could not believe that a man of Theo’s calibre had given up, but it was beginning to look that way. He hoped that Dan and Muller, if he had interpreted their signals correctly, would try and tackle Sanderson on their own. First, there was his pistol, then, Geoff was sure, the R3 in his kit would be loaded with live rounds, unlike their own weapons. He watched Sanderson sitting sweating in his corner and knew he was afraid of the coming jump. McNeil must have read his mind.

“You are going to break your fucking neck, Sanderson,” Dan yelled above the din, of the songs and the engines. “Throw in with us and we’ll get you out of this mess you’ve got yourself into! No amount of money is worth it if you don’t live to spend it! And, if the drop doesn’t kill you, your bosses will when you’ve done what they want!”

“Shut up!” The eyes were large behind the spectacles. The mouth trembled. “Just shut the fuck up!”

“They’ll shoot you when they’ve finished with you. Save themselves a pile of money. Who are they, Sanderson? Can’t be Frelimo, must be someone behind them. The Chinese? Is it the Chinese, Sanderson? The Chinks will snuff you out like a candle! Join us, man, it’s your only chance!”

“Damn you, McNeil! Shut your fucking mouth or I’ll… I’ll…” Sanderson half arose as if to hit Dan with the pistol but he didn’t follow through. He just crouched, trembling. Dan grinned at him wolfishly, but his stomach was balled up tight and the cuffs cut into his wrists. It was now light enough to see the silver ribbon that was the mighty Zambezi below them. The Dakota started to lose height. Manuela appeared in the cockpit doorway.

“Be quiet! Or this man dies!” Heads turned and the noise died as they saw that her pistol was steady, pointed at McNeil’s head. Destiny was on them and they all stiffened in fear and anticipation.

“You, Theunissen! Unlock the cuffs. Don’t be foolish, there is more at stake than your miserable lives!” Manuela handed the pale Theo a key. He unsnapped his own cuffs, awkwardly and massaged his wrists. He unsteadily stood up and turned to Muller. Each man whispered some desperate, hurried plan to him as he unlocked them, but to each he shook his head. Still, their drill was followed; as each man was freed, he took the snap link from the man ahead, ready to snap it onto the wire that ran overhead along the roof of the cabin.

It all happened as the last pair of cuffs clicked open. Da Silva had released his strap and moved to the corner by the open door, lining the G3 up on them and shouting; “Stay seated! Don’t move until you are told!”

Nourse was yelling to Blair, “Don’t be a bloody fool!” as he gripped Blair’s snap hook tight with the static line wrapped around his wrist. John Blair threw himself forward, ignoring the G3 in his stomach and ploughed into da Silva. The G3 burped briefly then Blair wrenched himself and the Portuguese through the open door. It was the first move in a wave of pandemonium. McNeil turned from Blair’s action to see Sanderson rap Manuela’s wrist with his pistol and slam the girl backwards into the cockpit and shut the door. Then, shaken by his decision and action, he stood gaping.

Behind him, Dan was aware or the rest of them leaving the aircraft.  – Go! Go! Go! – as he stepped to Sanderson and tore the pistol from the trembling hand. He snatched the snap hook from Sanderson’s pack and hit the overhead line with it.

“Go!” he yelled and shoved the frightened man towards the tail. He fired three shots through the cockpit door. There was a muffled scream but no-one appeared and the plane began to bank. Dan backed off to Sanderson, hooking himself to the wire as he did so. Except for Sanderson cowering against the rear bulkhead, the cabin was empty.

“I can’t,” Sanderson said. His face was ashen. McNeil took Sanderson’s spare ammunition for the R3, wasting a couple of seconds and praying that they were not also blanks. He dived out the doorway, even as the Dak almost stood on its wingtip, pulling Sanderson after him. He knew well how dangerous the double exit was, that they could entangle their opening ‘chutes, but they were lucky. Their ‘chutes jerked open, kissing edges. McNeil spilled air to move away, concentrating on the ground. One look was enough to spell it out. A few seconds later and he would have dropped into range of the rifles of the ant-like figures that swarmed towards him across the rock-strewn floor of what seemed to be an ancient extinct volcano. Splashes of rag showed him where his comrades had landed, stretching from the lip of the volcano towards himself and Sanderson. Then he was on the ground with a bone rattling thump, doing a nearly forgotten parachutist’s roll, narrowly missing a jagged boulder. Sanderson was rolling in agony a few metres away. Dan slipped his own harness, rescued his R3 and dashed to him. He ripped open Sanderson’s clips and left him to stagger to his feet, yelling, “Run, you bastard! Here they come!”

If Manuela had had her way, we would have landed smack in the middle of them, unarmed, thought McNeil. Even now, they had little chance of making it. He heard the burp of AK fire behind them, but it was far off, yet. He glanced back at Sanderson, saw him limping along as fast as he could go, clutching his R3. Ahead, he saw his own men running as best they could for the cleft in the mountain. They had discarded their useless weapons with their packs, having no choice but to run for it. The exception was Theo, who, for some reason had also retained his weapon. He saw Nourse and Schulman bending over a man on the ground. Muller, further along, was yelling back at them.   “Leave him, he’s had it!”

It was John Blair, the Englishman, with at least two of da Silva’s bullets in his stomach. McNeil reached them. Blair was conscious, but in great pain. Blood ran through his fingers as they clutched his middle. He grimaced a greeting to Dan.

“Get the hell out of here, you two!” McNeil’s voice was a snarl. He bent over Blair. “You haven’t a snowball’s, Johnny, you plucky bastard. See what you can do with this. It’s loaded but not full.”

“Thanks for nothing, you Japie cunt.” Blair gasped. “ So… so long, Dan…”

Then McNeil was away, leaving Sanderson’s pistol on Blair’s chest above his hands. John Blair screamed with the pain as he dragged himself into the lee of a boulder and cradled the pistol over his oozing gut. That was Geoff’s last sight of him as he glanced back, one last time. He could later only speculate.

He fights the waves of nausea as he turns to watch his friends’ progress. The furthest are climbing the lower slower slopes of the mountain, seeking no cover as yet as the AKs are still out of range except for a wild chance hit. Blair thinks he can just make out Jan de Groot in the lead, then Piet Visagie and Muller, Theunissen and Nourse, then McNeil and lastly Sanderson. He is confused about Sanderson; he cannot understand why the renegade is running, too. He had understood that the man had set them up for a massacre by the Frelimo, but now something has changed…

            “Ooh, Christ my guts hurt! What would me old mum say if she saw her Johnny, now!” He begins to weep, helpless, hopeless tears, as he watches the Japies running, ever slower, as the slope increases. The leaders are using their hands, scrabbling, now, sometimes out of sight amongst the boulders, almost up to the cliffs and curving towards their only hope of escape, the nick in the mountain over which they had flown, not so many minutes before.

            “Ah, God… ah God!” Blair feels the anger wash over him; anger at the waste, anger at the futility of it all, anger at the black men shooting at his friends. They are near now, he can hear them shouting, excited, like hounds on the scent, then the clatter of their boots, the hacking of their breath. He lies still on his pain and waits, almost impatiently, for them to come. They, too, are making no use of the cover; they have no need of it against unarmed men. They come in a ragged line, behind each other, a little to one side of Johnny Blair, their eyes up, fixed on the fleeing prey. All they have to do is get within range and pick them off as they appear on the face of the mountain; as they scramble towards their only hope, the fault in the rock. Even that will take some climbing to reach, for it cuts down only a fifth of the height of the cliffs. However, the slopes below it are not as sheer as the cliffs, themselves, and rough enough from erosion and rock slides to give a climber purchase, if not much cover.

            Still, the Frelimo men are not giving up the opportunity of pausing now and then to send a burp of bullets up at them. Now, some of the bursts are uncomfortably close, forcing the fleeing men to move with more caution and slowing them down.

            Two men in dirty camouflage stop to fire at the mountain. John Blair shoots the rear-most man in the back, holding the pistol in both hands. He shifts his aim to the foremost, who has not heard the single shot against the din of his own weapon. As he lowers it, Blair’s bullet tears through his shoulder blade and lung and he falls to his knees. Blair huddles, waiting for the bullets of those following to tear him apart. There is a burp and splinters shatter off his rock. There are cries of Sul Africano! Blair fires at a face that appears but it is wasted.

            The grenade bounces and rolls to within a metre of him. He wants to reach for it, to toss it back, as they do in the movies, but he freezes, staring at it in fascination for the two seconds before it goes off…

Dan thought Sanderson had twisted his ankle, but it seemed to hold his weight, even though he could see it was painful. His breath was tearing at his chest and his eyes filled with sweat as he tried to keep up with McNeil.

It seemed to Dan that Sanderson must have realised that Dan was right, though. They would have forced him to detonate the bloody bombs and then they would have killed him and what use his money then? But they still had to get out of this mess…

He must have believed they had a chance because the thought stopped him from turning and raising his hands and walking back down the slope. The other voice in his head would be saying:  they won’t kill you, they need you. You can trick them into letting you go, later, before the bombs, after the bombs, what does it matter? This way, you will die, anyway.

Although the sun had not yet cleared the eastern rim of the mountain, sweat dribbled down Sanderson’s face, into his eyes again and he wiped it off with his palm. He began to pull a blue cloth from his pocket and tried to fix it to his arm as he ran. A spray of bullets kicked up dust and gravel just ahead but he ploughed on after McNeil, using his hands, now, too.

Geoff Nourse could only guess what they were thinking as he waited behind a boulder for them to catch up. As Dan reached him, they heard the grenade go off.

“John got two of them, anyhow, and now they aren’t sure if there are any more of us down there.” Nourse said.

McNeil looked back. “Poor sod, but game, all the way!” he panted.

They were in a large clump of rocks, the best cover there was to be had anywhere in that part of the mountain. It was the tail end of a landslide that had come from the fault above them. The others were slipping from boulder to boulder, but, climbing as they did so, they were exposed for too long between one piece of cover and the next. Frelimo’s fire was increasing and they were now within range. Even Jan de Groot, in the lead, was obscured in a lash of bullet-raised dust, but McNeil saw him hug the rock and crawl away out of sight. De Groot was still a good way from the top.

“Look at that!” Nourse grabbed his arm. McNeil swung around to see the Frelimo men setting up a mortar. There seemed to be a man overseeing the operation, an officer of sorts. Another eight men started to climb after them, still assuming them to be unarmed except for Sanderson.

McNeil grinned, mirthlessly. “Sanderson must be worrying them! They didn’t expect him to join us.”

Sanderson, or van Rooyen, made his way into the shelter of rocks and sank to his knees, white slime around the gaping, gasping mouth. His shaking hands put down the R3 and reach for a handkerchief to wipe his spectacles and mop his brow. McNeil noted the blue armband. The mortar was almost ready and nobody would make the top if they fired it. Even with the worst marksmen possible, they could start a landslide that would bury them.

“Sorry, Sanderson, but we need this!” Dan scooped up the R3 and handed it to Nourse, together with one of the spare magazines.

“No!” The protest burst from him, but he only half heartedly grabbed at the weapon as Nourse took it. McNeil was kneeling, his own R3 on single. He fired, even as the bomb dropped down the muzzle of the tube. The officer was knocked sideways, but he was erect again in a few seconds, clutching his arm. A loud crump came as the round exploded somewhere beyond McNeil’s party and the last of the climbers, but neither Nourse nor McNeil turned to look at it. They fired selected shots, knowing full well what the consequences would be it the weapon would continue its barrage. Geoff dropped a man that lifted a second bomb. Dan badly scared the man that moved to take it over. Nourse hit the mortar tube without apparently damaging it. McNeil thought he hit another man as they began to drag the mortar away to another site, under better cover. Abruptly they dropped it and scattered. It fell in plain sight, much to McNeil’s relief. Then they were hugging the rocks as a hail of shots tore about them from a handful of Frelimo that were trying to outflank them.

McNeil’s fingers dug into Sanderson’s fleshy shoulder.

“Get up there and tell the others to wait for us over the top. We may be pinned down ‘til nightfall, so they mustn’t move ‘til dawn. If we aren’t there by then, they must…” he turned to Nourse to ask where they should head for but Nourse anticipated his question by continuing.

“Head downhill ‘til you reach the Zambezi; it’s not far. Go downstream, don’t try to cross. It’s all Frelimo territory. You’ll reach a store at Bandar, there’s an Indian there, if Frelimo have left him alone. Otherwise, continue downstream, there’s another store at Fortuna, and beyond that there’s the track to Lake Lifumba, there should be fishermen there, maybe a tractor to pull nets in. Further downstream are more stores, about thirty kilos apart.”

“I’ll tell you when to go, just keep your head down!” McNeil didn’t try to keep the scorn out of his voice, but Sanderson took no notice. He was no coward – it took nerve to do what he had done, sell out his country to the Chinese – but he was a communications expert, he had never been under fire before.

Nourse quartered the area where the mortar had fallen while McNeil picked off two of the flanking movement. Cover was scarce for them, but they found what they could and went to ground.

“Get going!” McNeil commanded, and astounded himself by adding, “Good luck!”

Sanderson sucked in his breath and shambled off up the slope, heading for the next clump of boulders. The other two did not watch him go; their eyes were glued to the crater floor. The far end was still in purple shadow, the sun well above the rim, now. The sky was cloudless; it probably would not rain again until November.

On the lower slope, a man began to crawl to fresh cover. Dan sighted on all he could see of him; his spine and head. His finger whitened on the trigger, his shoulders shook with the recoil. The head dropped down, but whether with fright or death, Dan could not tell. For awhile, only a carbine poked out with hardly a hand or an eye showing to guide it, and rattled off some wild shots.

Someone, it must be de Groot, Dan thought, had almost reached the top. Now and then, when he could risk a glance behind him, he would catch a glimpse of one or the other of the rest as they snaked from rock to bush to boulder. Then his attention was snapped forward again as a man made a short dash before he could fire. He waited patiently, watching the spot. The man, emboldened by his first success, left cover again. He fell on his face after two paces as McNeil’s shot echoed against the cliffs.

Frelimo made only one attempt to rescue the mortar and gave up when the alert Nourse drilled a man through the leg and kicked up flinty dust at another man’s heels. But then, they didn’t really need it; another mortar suddenly gave its throaty cough from across the crater. Both men involuntarily ducked, but the bomb was meant for the escapees on the rim. For a range finder, it was not bad and the second one proved that the man in charge knew his business.

Jan was standing on the top, Geoff could see. He knew his uniform would be wet with sweat, his knees shaking with fatigue, but he could only imagine the relief that would be rippling through him in waves so that he would feel nothing of the physical effects of what was now behind him.

Then, it was as Theunissen began to move up that the first mortar struck, thirty metres below and to one side of him. He lost his hold and slid back down into the cover of several boulders that he had just left. That probably saved his life. The second bomb hit the lip of the notch beside Jan who stood frozen with shock. His body was ripped apart like a chicken at a picnic. Chunks of rock erupted off the edge and rained down on Theunissen. Dan and Geoff could only guess if he had survived; he was out of sight.

The third bomb crashed and again splinters and lava debris flew, but it was a trifle over the edge and, it seemed, did them no damage. Again the mortar crumped, the mortar- man dropping his range by a hair. The slope shook and erupted chunks of rock, between where they thought that Theunissen lay and the spot where they could see Piet Visagie and Helmut Muller huddling in inadequate cover. It started to slide.

The seemingly solid rock beneath their bodies trembled and they scrabbled across the ledge that they were on, their ears filled with the sound of rumbling and their eyes and noses filled with dust and grit. They could not be aware of the shots that came at them, nor the reply by Nourse and McNeil that helped the former to go wide. The rock under them was splitting; it started to move. When the dust cleared, Geoff had a glimpse of two men disappearing into the trees on the crown. Several minutes later, another was visible for a minute, but when he snatched another glance from his vigil, the man was gone. Briefly, they later caught sight of the plump figure of the last man to make it over the crest, and for some reason there were no more mortars.

 

TWENTY FOUR

Their ledge dropped away even as their desperate fingers found holds in the face in front of them. Visagie’s hold was sure, he would later relate, though the fear cramped his throat and knotted his guts but ahead of him, he saw Muller’s fingers slip so that all his weight was on one hand and his heavy boots fought futilely for purchase, seemingly with a life of their own. A scream started from Muller’s mouth.

Then one of the flailing boots found a bubble pocket in the broken lava and it took the drag off the remaining sweating, slipping hand. Muller began to sob. Visagie tensed his powerful shoulders and lunged for another hold. He got it and his exploring feet found

another. Suddenly he was on a higher ledge. He was dully aware of the rumble decreasing as the slide died away to a trickle of gravel and that the mortar had not fired again. He was able to edge over to give Muller a hand. They curled up for awhile in good cover to catch their breath. After five minutes, they started on up, hardly bothered by the occasional rattle of shots that splattered near them. They reached the top and stumbled back into the safety of the trees and sank onto the rock slabs to rest.

Theo crawled over the edge and headed towards them. Piet managed to get to his feet to give him a hand. One of Theo’s fingers was squashed; ripped open. He tore a strip off his shirt to bandage it. Shortly afterwards, Rafe Schulman arrived to join them, unscathed except for an abrasion on his head where a sizeable rock must have struck him. He still seemed to be dazed, sitting quietly, not joining in the conversation.

“Think they can circle around us here?” Piet asked, lighting a cigarette. They were in good, shaded cover and their position commanded a reasonable view of all approaches. Theo shook his head.

“Not for awhile. They were expecting us to be dropped at their feet and that we would be totally unarmed. They wouldn’t miss the fun, so I expect that every Ter in the area was there in the crater to watch. Even when things went wrong, they didn’t expect us to get away. I never saw anyone moving out, but I may be wrong.”

“I wonder what happened on the plane,” Muller licked his bleeding finger tips, but his tongue was dry and the blood reminded him how thirsty he was. “The last thing I saw was Sanderson slamming that Porto bitch into the cockpit; then I was gone. I saw the bugger down there with Geoff and Dan. He must have chickened out of whatever he was up to, hein?”

“Well, man, if it wasn’t for him, she would have shot at least a couple of us. Hell, if it wasn’t for Dan and Geoff, none of us would have made it.” Pieter gestured at the R3 at Theo’s side, “Pity that thing isn’t loaded; we could at least give them some covering fire from up here…”

“They don’t stand a chance!” Theo said flatly. His eyes were cold. “They must be nearly out of ammo by now and Frelimo will be able to pick them off at will. It’s ourselves that we must think of.”

Rafe was staring away at the sky; he seemed not to have heard. Muller said nothing, he just nodded. Piet gaped at them, looking from one to the other in amazement. It was not in him to abandon his mates, even at risk to himself. Especially those two, for, even if he had been close to neither, they had made it possible for him to make his own escape.

Jong! We can’t do that. We could move along the mountain, cause a diversion, light a fire or something. Surely, something?” He thrust his thick fingers through his sweat-wet wavy brown hair.

“Fire would do nothing, too much rock!” Theo scoffed. “You want to throw rocks at them? No, there’s nothing that we can do except get the hell out of here and back down South.”

But something, a shadow, moved in his cold eyes. Regret, pain, a memory? Theunissen had plenty of those, thought Pieter.

“What do you say, Rafe?” Pieter appealed to the silent Schulman, who blinked in surprise and looked at Piet as if he was from another planet.

“Watch out!” shouted Muller. Theo lunged for his weapon and Piet spun around. A shadow moved out of the trees. Then they relaxed, it was only Sanderson, limping, but otherwise unhurt. He stood, swaying with fatigue, but he watched the others warily, not

sure of them. Piet knew he thought of them as men that he had almost sacrificed for his own gains and he was not sure that Sanderson might not do so again if the cards fell that way.

“What now, Mr. Colonel?” Muller demanded. “You lost your nerve, didn’t you?”

“You’d be dead, if it wasn’t for me.” Sanderson said coldly, but Piet saw some strange look pass between him and Theunissen. The two men went off together far enough to have a private conversation. Piet had no idea what it could be about, but when they returned, Theo said that they would have to watch each other’s backs and they would make it out alive. The colonel had guaranteed them all a bonus if they helped him get to Rhodesia safely.

“So, you’re with us, then? What made you change sides?” asked Muller, roughly. “And what were you doing with those bastards in the first place?”

Sanderson eyed them from behind his dusty spectacles, “Money, man, same as you lot.”

He seemed on the point of saying something more, but hesitated. His pale eyes darted from man to man.

“Give me some time to think it over, and maybe I can make us all a fortune. I could use some tough men,” he said, “Or, were you thinking of getting the hell back to South Africa, where you’ll be safe?”

You’re bloody right, man! Thought Piet Visagie, but he said nothing. He was worried about Schulman, who seemed to be concussed. He could sense the interest rise in the other two men.

“Do your thinking,” Theo Theunissen said, “and maybe we will listen. In the meantime, let’s get out of here.” Another look passed between the two men that went unnoticed by Muller, but Piet picked it up. He wondered what plot they had hatched.

“McNeil asked us to wait for dawn,” Sanderson said in a for-the-record voice, “to give them a chance of getting out under cover of dark. If they don’t make it, we are to go without them.” He added Nourse’s instructions. “I don’t see them moving from there; they are completely pinned down…” He had no intention of waiting five minutes, never mind twenty hours.

Theo shouldered his weapon. “Okay, then, Bandar, here we come.”

Only Piet Visagie looked back at the crest over which they had come with an expression of doubt on his craggy face. He kept close to Rafe. They headed down the steep, rocky slopes from one clump of thorn to the next, then into the mopane belt. After two hours they stopped to gaze at the ribbon of water and sand bars that could be made out below them. They licked dry lips and walked on. Behind them, over the mountain, the vultures gathered to the feast. Frelimo men, John Blair, José da Silva, Jan de Groot. And there would be more.

To be continued…

 

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The BARROS PAWNS – Serial Episode #7 Ch. 19-21

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 19-21.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

Palms 1NINETEEN

They had not been physically uncomfortable but their nerves were stretched to the limit. Escape was in all their minds, but nobody got near it. John Blair, the Englishman, made the most serious attempt. There was a short, globe-less, disconnected light fitting near the ceiling over the door. Blair got Muller and Visagie to give him a leg up until he was standing on the two-centimetre ledge above the door, holding onto the light fitting to keep himself there with a galvanised iron ablution bucket in the other hand as a weapon. But Ribeiro’s visit was much later than expected and Blair was trembling with the strain. His hand slipped from the fitting a second before Ribeiro opened the door and he fell in an ignominious heap at his feet.

Ribeiro read the situation at a glance and thereafter they had to stand against the far wall and be counted when they got the warning knock before the door was opened. They were told that if there were any missing at the count, then the guard would open fire on those that he could see. They didn’t believe this as, after asking repeatedly what was to become of them and receiving no answer, they thought that they were being kept for some other reason that required them to be alive, not just to be press-ganged into taking the field against Frelimo.

When Visagie and Muller had succeeded in cracking the door with repeated kicking in the first few hours of their incarceration, a steel plate had been bolted to the inside with an eye-level peephole and four stout pad bolts on the outside. Their lights were out of reach in the ceiling and the air-con ducts were too small to bother with. They lost hope, then.

There was more than enough space for them all to lay out their mattresses without being crowded. Their food was anything on the menu that they cared to order, but it was served on paper plates and they ate with plastic spoons. They had plenty of beer in cans, which were counted, full and empty, in case any sort of weapon could be made of them. They were given packs of cards to play with, a chess set, and their clothes were laundered every day.

McNeil left his transmitter off to conserve its miniature batteries for use in such time as they were moved. Nourse lengthened his off time quickly until it was on for only three minutes in the hour. They hoped that Brand would guess what they were up to. McNeil suggested physical exercises to keep themselves fit for any possible escape opportunity that might present itself. All of them were willing. The days dragged and their spirits dropped. They learned every card game that any of them ever knew and invented others until they were sick of cards. They drank beer until they were sick of that.

Theunissen’s nose and lip healed as did Schulman’s head cut. They even started language classes, starting with Fanagalo, the lingua-franca of the mines, also known as Chilapalapa, in Rhodesia, then Swahili. Muller even offered to teach them German. They reminisced about their parts and experiences in the two battles that they had been through.

It was during this time that Geoff, in quiet conversation with the Englishman, John Blair, heard what Helmut Muller had had to say about his grudge against O’Donnell, but there was no way that Muller could have been involved in the Irishman’s ghastly death. But Muller had admitted to John that from the time of his fight with Visagie onwards, he was biding his time. No man sat on Helmut Muller and got away with it.

He had smiled, John told Geoff, repeating Muller’s words. “There have been a few that have tried it on. Ha. There was that foreman in Windhoek, Smit, I remember. Aways pushing a little; until he wound up in hospital with a broken jaw. He wanted to take me to court, but I had a little talk to him about what would happen to his wife and kids, if he got over enthusiastic. Ha ha, he saw the light, then, but I lost my job, anyway, because I been seeing too much of the boss’ daughter!” He had laughed again and Blair had wanted to tell him to shut up, but admitted to Geoff that didn’t have the nerve. The boss had even paid his fare to Germany to get rid of him. Everyone thought that he’d been fired for smacking Smit. The joke was still on the boss, because after Muller was gone, the boss had discovered that his daughter was pregnant and the daughter was trying to get on a boat in Walvis Bay. Helmut hadn’t known about that until he had returned to the territory four months previously. What a laugh he had thought that was! John had asked him if he had seen his kid and Helmut had looked at the Englishman as if he’d taken leave of his senses.

In changing the subject, it was to impress on John the high-rolling criminals he’d worked for. Helmut had never been involved in anything heavy, himself, he said, either here, Australia, where he had lived for a while, or in Germany, but he knew some big men in a lot of different businesses that were not straight. Occasionally, he had done a little work for them, a bit of leaning on reluctant dealers and such like. He kept out of trouble not for moral reasons, but for fear of being caught due to the stupidity of other people. He had the brains to pull off a job on his own, but not the resources, he had said. Blair thought it was because he had not quite enough nerve. However, he had given a John a vague notion that there was some idea tickling at the back of his active mind.

“No come-back, that is the thing. If I knew exactly when we were leaving the country, then I could pull something, just before we left.” Muller had said. It didn’t tie in with anything, now that O’Donnell was dead, so Geoff did not mention it to Dan.

They were so into their routine that it came as a shock when they were told, after supper on their sixth day, by da Silva, that they were to dress warmly as they were going for a truck ride.

“How far,” Schulman asked, not expecting an answer.

“To Mr. Barros hunting camp on the Mungari River,” he said without expression.

“Nourse can tell you how far that is.”

Issued with their camouflage bush gear again, they were herded into the back of an army-green Bedford five-tonner in an enclosed yard at the hotel. They were hand-cuffed there, well forward, and guarded by the inevitable Ribeiro and Campos from the back. The canvas flap was tied down and the engine fired. It did a three-point turn then they were on their way. What lay ahead of them, they could not begin to guess. Nourse tried questioning the guards, but they seemed to know as little about it as themselves, except that da Silva and Manuela would be coming by Dakota. Nourse was able to extract from them how they had got back to Beira from beyond Maringue. They had walked to a nearby village and persuaded a Sena man to take money to go and buy them two sets of civilian clothes from the only store and gave their camo overalls in payment. They had then hitch-hiked a ride on a cotton truck to Inhaminga, saying that their Landrover had broken a spring; that they were going to look for spares. The trains were still running from there to Beira, although Frelimo blew them off the lines from time to time. By the next day they were in Beira, asking da Silva for a job, knowing that there was no love lost between him and the mercenaries.

The truck made the journey without mishap, except for the discomfort of the reluctant passengers, but it was nearly dawn when they could stretch their cramped limbs and climb down. The camp was a series of squat silhouettes and palm trees against the starlit sky and they could make out little detail. Their new quarters were another store room, newly cleared out, from the marks of crates on the dusty floor. It, too, was windowless. The door had no hatch but it was solid Partridge wood. The walls were whole borassus palm logs, covered with mesh and plastered. The ceiling was also whole logs pushed tightly together, and when McNeil and Schulman tried to lift them, they did not budge and there was an angry hiss from behind the netting.

The agony of Manuela’s behaviour had died to a dull emotional ache and Nourse clutched his breast in a theatrical fashion and abruptly grinned to himself, muttering.

“Fucking bitch!”

McNeil chuckled in sympathy, guessing who he was thinking about.

“Hey, Dan! You awake? What the fuck is going to happen to us?”

Dan had also been trying to piece it all together. “They are using us, somehow. A bloody Commie Plot!” he smiled, wryly, in the dark. He whispered his thoughts. “Barros is out of it, no longer at the helm. Sanderson, too, is being used, I think. Some sort of set up between your girl, Manuela, and da Silva? No, their orders are coming from somewhere else. The Russians? The Chinese? More likely the latter, as the Russians influence is not established so far south, I don’t think.” He swore softly, “I feel so fuckin’ frustrated at our helplessness. True, there’ve been no opportunities to make a break, but until now, I’ve been reluctant to do so for fear of losing this tenuous link to van Rooyen. If we could somehow free ourselves, you and I could take van Rooyen back to Beira at gunpoint and hand him over to Brand. Then get the hell back home.”

“Home? Where’s home?” Geoff chuckled a little bitterly.

“Home for me, now, means some place with Cecile in it,” Dan surprised himself by admitting. “I was married before, you know? Suzanna, her name was. That was a fuck-up. Beautiful, shallow Suzy. Our compatibility lasted as long as the honeymoon. The day after the divorce came through, I got on a boat to Aussie. But Cecile, now – if she will have me, we can live together for a year of two and if that works out, get married. Well, I can only dream, can’t I?”

“We’ve got to get out of here first!” Nourse hissed, but he smiled, anyway. At least one of them had optimistic thoughts.

 

TWENTY

Alistair and Smuts were on the same plane, but ignored each other until they were through Immigration and Customs at Chileka Airport. Then a well-dressed Chinese touched Alistair on the elbow.

“Excuse me, but if you are looking for a taxi into Blantyre, they are rather expensive. I have transport and it would be a pleasure to give you a lift.” His English was precise, but the accent sing-song. Alistair smiled and thanked him and followed him out of the building into the blinding sunlight. The Chinese said no more until they reached a canopied Landrover truck in the car park. He took Alistair’s suitcase and put it in the back. A cloud of dust arose as he slammed the door.

“I believe you have met Mr. Smuts?” Smuts was already seated in the middle seat. They nodded at each other.

“In the restaurant business?” Alistair asked, laconically. The Chinese smiled.

“Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Lee Kwan. I have several trading stores in Malawi. We shall be going to one in the south, this afternoon. But first, you’d like a wash and a meal, I am sure?”

“Thank you. And a drink.” Without asking, Alistair slid his window open as far as it would go and opened the vent in the dashboard to allow as much breeze as possible. The sweat cooled on his neck. There had been no point in introducing himself; the man would know exactly who he was.

They lunched at Ryall’s Hotel, then afterwards Lee took them south on a metalled road that crossed the Shire River and wound through the mountains. He turned off on a track that led south-west between rocky ridges clad in green M’sasa woodland, through scattered villages. Alistair’s arm began to ache from waving back at the Africans that greeted; waving and grinning at the roadside.  Neither Lee nor Smuts bothered. Smuts told him that thousands of villagers from Mozambique fled this way, escaping from the Aldeamentos. He explained what they were, that they were oppressive establishments, virtually concentration camps, where the Portuguese could control the local populace and enforce curfews. He did not mention that they were also for protection against wandering Frelimo bands that took what food and sex they wanted and coerced the men to join them. He did not mention that there was allotted farmland for each family within easy walking distance of the pole and thatch dwellings, either.

It was well after four o’clock when they reached the store. It squatted on a low hill, an oblong bungalow with a full length veranda. It had once been white-washed but now it was a cracked and streaky yellow with a grime level up to human height. It was shaded by a quadrangle of ancient blue-gum trees. A thin young Indian man was serving at the battered wooden counter that ran the length of the store. Behind him, shelves of tinned goods and gaudy material rose to the ceiling. Alistair followed the other two into the gloom of the store, swaying to dodge the bicycle wheels and frames, and dried fish that hung from the rafters. The customers were mostly women, some dressed in gay print cloth or blankets, often with infants on their backs. The air was thick with their odour, fish and tobacco, almost overpowering for the Englishman. The Chinese greeted the Indian briefly but did not introduce his companions. He was handed some keys. They followed him as he ducked under the counter and found themselves in a long dim corridor, the walls of which were lined to the roof with sacks of maize meal. He unlocked a door at the far end with the keys. Lee stepped into the darkness and opened some curtains, shutters and windows onto the sunset. The yellow light revealed a small lounge with two doors leading off at either side. It was simply but tastefully furnished with local wood. In contrast with the rest of the store, it was clean and neat. A fridge and cabinet stood against one wall that attracted Alistair’s attention. Lee noticed him lick his lips.

“Scotch or a cold beer, Mr. Alistair?” He opened the fridge. Smuts opted for a beer, Alistair for Scotch. Lee poured himself a tall glass of iced water. After a second one, he got to his feet and held out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Alistair. I must be going. Mr. Smuts will look after you from here on. I hope that you see what you have come to see. Good luck and goodbye.” He let himself out and Smuts locked the door behind him, and then lit three paraffin lamps. He opened one of the doors to show Alistair a small bedroom with a single bed, a shower and toilet. He passed him his suitcase and told him to make himself comfortable.

“We’ll be off at four tomorrow morning, Alistair. Until then we stay in these quarters. There are sandwiches and a flask of soup for supper. Have another drink?” He cracked another beer for himself and began to talk about South African troops in Mozambique.

 

TWENTY ONE

Vuka, inja!” Wake up, dog! Piet Visagie practised his Fanagalo on Muller as he stuck a toe in Muller’s ribs. The German groaned and sat up. The rest of them were stacking their mattresses in a corner to make way for their daily P.T.

“Move your arse, Helmut!” Theunissen told him.

“Get stuffed. You aren’t the boss anymore. We’re all just rats in a cage. Pawns for their fuckin’ game. Just you go and get stuffed!”

“Helmut. Do you really want to get taken apart?” Theo asked mildly.

“Fuck you.” But he got to his feet anyhow, and began folding his blankets.

They had almost finished, when they heard the banging on the door. Reluctantly, they moved to the far wall so that they could be counted. Campos opened the door, counted, then beckoned to Nourse to come.

“You will fetch your breakfast.” He told him in Portuguese. Geoff translated and stepped out into the mid morning sunlight. It was going to be another hot day. He walked ahead of Campos under threat of his G3 to a long low bungalow that the man indicated. There seemed to be no-one around, which was strange for a hunting camp as it would have been full of servants preparing for their guests. Then, two bungalows away, a door opened and a white man whom Geoff recognised as the hunter and manager that ran the camp for Barros, named Reis. He waved at him, but Reis gave no acknowledgement. Geoff shrugged and started into the building as Campos prodded his back. The interior was panelled with beautiful m’bila wood and scattered with locally made partridge wood furniture. Sable and zebra skins bedecked the floors. A four metre stuffed crocodile surged across one wall. A set of enormous buffalo horns was mounted above the door, next to the long bar. Campos waved him through the door and down a long corridor that gave onto several guest rooms, beautifully got out in gleaming varnished local wood and colourful Kenyan linen with African print. At the far end was a modern stainless steel kitchen where an ancient black man in an apron was just taking a coffee pot off the gas stove. Nourse said good morning and the old man grinned at him, almost toothlessly.

“From Rhodesia?” The old man enquired in English as he poured coffee into tin mugs. “Me, I know Rhodesia too much! Rusape, Marandellas, Salisbury, I know, too much!

“Good place, eh, Madala?” Nourse grinned back. The old one shook his grey head in recollection.

“Too good, that place!”

Campos told the old man to shut up and get on with the ham sandwiches that he’d started buttering. He was next to Nourse, then, and before he could stop himself, Nourse gripped the G3 barrel with his right hand and smashed Campos in the face with his left fist. The thin Portuguese fell back against the steel topped, hip height counter, but he hung onto the rifle with surprising strength, snarling as he tried to twist away from Nourse’s slamming left.

“Ribeiro!” called Campos. Nourse heard the kitchen door smash open and even as he twisted to meet the other man, Ribeiro smacked his rifle butt across his head.

When he came around a few minutes later, the old man had emptied his third bucket of water over him. Beside the awful throb in his skull, his side felt on fire and he guessed that Campos had got the boot in as he had lain there. Fortunately, the boots were the canvas and rubber type, not leather, or he might have broken some ribs. Despite his pain, he managed a twisted grin when he saw Campos face. His lips were split and an eye would close, soon.

“Bloody macacos,” Geoff spat out at them. Bloody monkeys! The stainless steel world was spinning around him. Campos growled and advanced, but Ribeiro waved him back and told Nourse to take the tray back to his companions before he got himself shot. Nourse managed to get to his feet, eventually and staggered out with it, saying, “Stay well, old man,” to the cook as he went. He felt nauseous and the bright sunlight made it seem as if his eyeballs would burst. He could hear an aircraft coming in to land and without seeing it, knew the sound of a Douglas DC3 when he heard it. That would be the Dakota with Manuela, da Silva and Sanderson aboard. He dared not look up for fear that he would fall over. He staggered to the store room that was their prison. Ribeiro banged on the door and counted the occupants when he had opened it. They gave a hearty guffaw when they saw Campos’ face. The door was locked on them, again. Soon afterwards, they heard a vehicle start up and guessed that it was heading for the Dak.

“You bloody fool, Geoff,” McNeil said without much rancour, when he’d related what had happened.

“You mean; bloody good try!” snarled Blair. “Only wish you had made it, then we may have had a chance of getting out of this mess! Christ, I wonder what the hell they are planning for us.”

“Something dirty, anyhow,” said Jan de Groot. “You say there was nobody else but this Reis guy and the cook. Maybe they are going to knock us off without any witnesses.”

“You are forgetting the Dak,” Dan broke in. “They have a Cessna to get here in. Why a Dak?”

An hour later, they were given a few more clues. Dan and Jan were driven in a jeep out to the Dakota where it stood on the grass landing strip of the hunting lodge. They unloaded nine Army parachutes and took them back to one of the long verandas. Manuela, in flying boots and white overalls, unsmiling and curt, supervised their packing, while Sanderson watched over them with a pistol.

The rest of the captives were returned to the Dak by da Silva, who was looking very pleased with himself, accompanied by the Dakota’s pilot, a tall thin mulatto. They were guarded by Ribeiro, and Campos, whose eye was entirely closed, now. They worked for the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon on painting out the CR registration and the blue and red stripes that were the Barros insignia. When Nourse overheard the pilot ask da Silva whether Mr. Barros was in his quarters, they deduced that Barros had also been on the plane. Reis, the camp manager, drove a fuel tanker out to the plane as they finished painting. He started refuelling, helped by the thin pilot. The puzzled prisoners were walked back to their prison.

“What’s this lot for, Manuela?” McNeil asked as he started on his third parachute. She was sitting in the veranda’s low wall, close enough to watch every detail of the packing, but out of reach in case one of the South Africans tried to jump her and use her as a shield against Sanderson‘s gun.

“You lot, so pack them well.”

“But there are nine ‘chutes and only eight of us.”

“One spare, now shut up and get on with it!”

But Jan had seen Sanderson wince. “Hey, Dan, the ninth one’s for that bastard.”

Dan looked at him, gauging him, but Sanderson refused to meet his gaze.

“You jumped, before…er, Sanderson?” Bloody nearly called him van Rooyen, thought Dan.

The colonel only hesitated for a fraction of a second.

“Of course!” he snapped. Manuela’s face twisted in anger. She screamed at them to get on with it.

“What’s this all about, Manuela? Why are we making this jump? Aren’t you scared that we will just run off into the bush when we hit the ground, or is this why this treacherous bastard is coming with us?”

McNeil was crouched on the floor, straightening the canopy in its folds and before he could raise his hands to protect himself, Manuela had sprung across the intervening distance and flashed the blade of her open hand across his neck. Dan collapsed on the rip-stop material. Jan hardly shifted from where he was taking the tension on the rigging lines before Sanderson’s pistol was lined up on his body. For a long moment, nobody moved. Then McNeil groaned and rolled onto his side. Manuela stepped back to the wall, her look dripping with venom. Jan went to Dan’s side and massaged his neck. Shudders racked his body. Eventually, he was able to sit up, his face pale. He crawled to the edge of the veranda and vomited. Jan turned to Manuela, cursing her in Afrikaans, but she just watched him impassively, only her neat bosom lifting and falling rapidly under her white overalls showed her tension.

“As for you, jou fokken veraaier!” Jan turned on Sanderson, “You fucking Judas, you’re in this for the money. Selling out the country that nurtured you, for filthy money!

Do you know how hard you fall in full kit? It takes months of training to survive the fall and you aren’t fit. You’re flabby! You’ll break your fucking neck, you sod, and how we’ll laugh!”

“I’ve jumped twice!” Sanderson blurted, his round face purple with anger, and, Jan hoped, with fear. He twisted his mouth into an expression of scorn, but before he could speak, Manuela told him to shut up.

“If you speak at all, you speak English. What’s he been saying?”

He told her and it seemed to Jan that she probably felt the same contempt for the man that he did. He was almost asking her for reassurance about the coming jump. He later told Geoff that he guessed then that Manuela had been training the Colonel for this one jump, probably here at the Mungari hunting camp. Probably from the Cessna. He wondered what the bastards had in store for them that this man, who had been his Commanding Officer in Signals, was required to jump out of an aeroplane, which he was not at all keen to do. Jan knew that the colonel did not recognise him and knew it would not be a good idea to let him know that they knew who he was.

Dan wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and came unsteadily back to the parachute. Jan changed places with him and they got on with the packing in silence.

*****

DC3 cockpitRafe Schulman was wishing he could get at the controls of the Dak, he told Geoff. It was a few years since he had flown one, but he knew that he wouldn’t have any trouble. God, if he could only get in there. He knew that all of them were keyed up with this comparative freedom after the routine of their prison. Perhaps they’d get a chance before they were forced to make this jump. He was sure that they would not survive it, but he could not say why he thought so. Why did they want them to jump? He thought he was the only one to have jumped under full kit, in combat conditions; he was the only true Parabat. Half of the others had probably forgotten how to roll, having been spoilt for so long under their luxury sports parachutes – their Papillons, Para-Commanders, Clouds and the like. Geoff agreed.

“You jumped before?” he asked Theo Theunissen who was painting on the other side of him. Theo started; his thoughts had been far away.

“Indo-China. About twenty jumps. A few more in Algeria. Hated it like the devil! Can’t understand why you guys do it for fun.” He saw da Silva looking at them as if to say, get on with it.

“Hey, da Silva.” Rafe demanded, “You say we’re going to jump out of this thing. Why? Where?”

“We know where the main Frelimo camp is and we’ll drop you right into it.” Da Silva seemed to be in a good mood.

“Why? It makes no sense. After the way you treated us, you still expect us to fight for you?”

“Yes,” he laughed, “of course! You will be protecting yourselves and fighting for a free Mozambique. You have joined the cause, whether you like it or not.”

Geoff was feeling a bit better now, recovering from his beating. He looked at Rafe. Rafe swallowed his anger but his puzzlement was obvious.

“But if we’re armed, why would we not just take over the Dak and fly it home?”

“Who said anything about arming you?” da Silva positively shook with mirth.

“You bastards!” roared Rafe, “You are throwing us to them like scraps to the dogs!” He almost threw himself at da Silva, but the latter stepped back smartly and levelled the G3 at them.

“So, if they don’t shoot you, you have a chance of living. You should be happy, no?” da Silva chuckled again.

That didn’t make sense, especially after, when they returned to their prison, McNeil told them that Sanderson would be making the jump with them. He told them what had happened at the packing.

The following morning, they were woken at three o’clock and issued used South African Army camouflaged Para kit and webbing. They were each given an R3, the folding-stock version of the FN used by South African paratroopers, to be clipped into their kit.

Manuela, again in white overalls, lined them up in the lights in front of the veranda where the parachutes had been packed and she assured them that, although the weapons appeared to be loaded, the ammunition was dummy.

“Whether you are shot by Frelimo after you jump, or us before you do, does not matter in the slightest, so you had better behave. At least you have a chance of survival after you have exited, so we’d prefer no trouble before then.”

“Bitch!” thought Nourse, his guts in a knot. Surely this was not the same woman standing here before them, condemning them to death, as the warm soft girl he had made love to?

They were herded to the Dak, the engines of which were being warmed by the thin pilot. Manuela took her place in the right-hand seat and pulled on her headgear. Sanderson covered them from the cockpit end and Ribeiro from the gaping hole where the cabin door had been, while Campos handcuffed them to the naked ribbing of the plane’s wall and they squatted on the bare floorboards. Da Silva, wearing a hip length sheepskin coat, came aboard. Ribeiro and Campos got out to join Reis, the camp manager.

“Watch the old man, Reis,” da Silva told him, “and Rosa! Don’t let them do anything stupid!” Above the roar of the big radials, they didn’t hear the reply. Nourse translated into McNeil’s ear. The deduction was shocking. Rosa was being held here to keep her father under control. Manuela’s own sister, da Silva’s wife! It seemed that her father was a virtual prisoner here, too.

Safari vehicles along the runway had their lights on, to form a flight path. The old plane began to move down it, bumping gently. It lifted at the second last vehicle and swooped over the last. Climbing, it curved north and west into the dark sky that was just beginning to show a faint glimmer of light over the faraway sea. It was four-thirty.

To be continued…

 

 

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The BARROS PAWNS – serial instalment #6. Ch. 16-18

THE BARROS PAWNS: A free serial for Lockdown – 16-18.

A novel of war in Mozambique by Peter J. Earle

Author of 6 southern African thrillers.

Shipwreck

The wreck of the coaster, Willem Eggers, Macuti beach, Beira, Mozambique.

SIXTEEN

The day after Beira was rocked by the news of the tragic death of that unfortunate holiday maker, Mr. Ryan O’Donnell, another foreigner was found dead on the beach at Macuti, near the wreck of the coaster, Willem Eggers. He had been staying at the Motel Estoril. It appeared that he had drowned during his early morning swim. He was identified by Motel staff as, according to his South African passport, one William Simpson. In fact, he had been born Charles Howard Summers.

If two other visitors had not been alerted by this mishap, they, too, might have met an untimely end.

It had started out by being a lovely day. Brand was up early enough to catch the sun rising over the sea, while Cecile lay hovering between sleep and wakefulness, missing out on the splendour. Their single beds were pushed close together, for appearances, but there was nothing physical between them. Brand, however, could admit, to himself, to a fatherly fondness for the girl. It had been some time since he had personally been in the field in this capacity, but there was always unnecessary strain if field agents were incompatible.

Brand was worried. He had to assume that his two amateurs were still at the hotel but had seen their quarry. It was thirty six hours since O’Donnell’s death and the activation of the transmitters, but Brand was none the wiser as to what had happened, except that the transmitters were together in the basement. He paced the balcony. The phone rang at their bedside. Cecile sat up to answer it, becoming instantly alert.

De Souza’s voice said: “Summer’s gone and winter’s coming on.” He disconnected.

Cecile repeated it to Brand. Summers had disappeared from his Motel. It was a shock; things were starting to happen. Covers were quite possibly blown. They needed to meet with de Souza within the hour to hear if he had more news. Yesterday, De Souza had been in contact to report that someone answering van Rooyen’s description had been seen by the Barros’ personal servants in the upper suites. There was no way of getting at him except by direct assault on the Barros’ apartments. It had to be clean and quiet, so he could not risk it. Yesterday, too, Summers had reported that he had followed Barros’ son-in-law, José da Silva, to a rather scruffy restaurant off the Rua Correia de Brito and was in time to see him ushered into a back office by the old Chinese owner of the Chin Won. That had raised some confusing questions. It was Summers’ opinion that the visit was not social and not hotel business.

If the Chinese were in the game, they were on opposite sides to Barros but could well be bed-fellows of van Rooyen. Then Barros and van Rooyen would not be co-operating! Everything pointed to Barros being no communist; he had spent millions trying to hold on to Mozambique as a white-dominated state where his own empire would retain its value. No Chinese lackey, this Barros.

Brand stood on the balcony, his mind buzzing with the permutations and trying to decide what they should do and what had happened to Summers. His adrenalin was already in circulation, when the room’s door swung open without warning. The black man with the automatic shotgun stepped into the room and swung the weapon towards the beds where Cecile sat up. Perhaps it was the sight of the empty one that made him hesitate. Brand yelled Cecile’s name and threw himself backwards. There was a shattering roar and the glass of the sliding doors fragmented over his head. He thought that he had had it then because all he had between himself and the next shot was a small table that he hugged against his chest as he came up against the balcony rails. The nightmare gun came through the gap, looking for him. He flung the table in a pathetically futile gesture of defiance and hardly heard the two muted coughs from the bedroom. The shotgun discharged again, but now into the morning sky and the man collapsed onto the railings in an untidy heap.

Feeling nauseous, Brand got to his feet. He took a few deep breaths, his eyes on Cecile as she unscrewed the silencer from her .25 Beretta. He nodded, in approval and gratitude. He went to kneel at their attacker’s side and felt his pulse. He wasn’t dead, yet, but as far as Brand could tell, and he had experience in such things, it would be only a matter of minutes before the hesitant heart stopped. The man was mouthing something, but it was in his own tongue and Brand, who was adept at lip-reading the several languages that he could speak, could not understand. The man was in tatty grey jeans and a faded black tee-shirt. A deft feel through his pockets revealed a roll of notes and no identity. Also, he seemed to have been on some drug; his pupils were dilated. He shuddered and gave a long sigh that turned out to be his last.

Shouting from adjacent rooms and pounding footsteps indicated the imminent need of charades. Cecile cried hysterically into the phone that they’d been attacked by a madman. She kept the pistol in view; she had a permit for it for self protection, but naturally, not for the silencer. Brand swiftly hid any items not in keeping with a professor of ichthyology. People surged into the room; shouting, demanding. Brand added his own shocked and quavering voice to the noise. He wanted the comfort of his pipe, feeling too much at the mercy of the fickle fates for the peace of his normally cool, commanding mind.

 

*****

 

That same day in late April, 1974, it was announced on the radios and televisions of the world that there had been a change of government in Portugal. It appeared that the public hero, General Spinola, was to head the new government. For the first time in years, people throughout the Portuguese world were free to discuss their country’s politics without thousands of informers passing the word along to the dreaded D.G.S. This, the Department of State Security, was disbanded; hundreds of its officers were imprisoned and hundreds of others were beaten up by a populace that had for years lived in fear of an organisation whose tentacles had reached everywhere.

Some, however, thought it was all a farce behind which the forces of Communism were at work, slowly separating the ducklings from the safety of their mother, so that the big red fox could gobble them up in her own sweet time.

 

 

SEVENTEEN

John Alistair was a freelance journalist of international repute, but it was the first time that he had come to Mozambique. It was only two days before the D.G.S. found out who he was and he was apprehended in Lourenço Marques. They were very polite.

What was he doing in this country? No, they were afraid that they could not believe that he was here to cover the war. The war was not news any more and besides, the only journalists still writing about it were escorted by the Army. Why had he not applied for permission to be taken to the war zone? For six hours they were sorry that they did not believe him. Then some soldiers arrived with a colonel and a few curt words were exchanged. The colonel apologised to him and told him that he was free to leave. Now he was reluctant to do so as he sensed that something extraordinary was afoot. Although he spoke a little Spanish, it was not enough to enable him to fathom the excited babble of Portuguese that washed around him. He dashed to the nearest large shop and demanded to be told what had happened. He learned of the coup, of Spinola and how things would be different, now.

“Will it be a change for the better?” asked Alistair as he mopped his balding head for the umpteenth time that day. The short squat woman who spoke English looked around, out of habit to see who might be listening, then shrugged.

“Some say that the Communists in Portugal Continental are strong. If they get power there, then I think that here in Mozambique we are finish. Is possible, I don’t know.” She shrugged again, and, she being white, Alistair assumed that she meant that the whites in Mozambique would be finish.

Someone shouted something from outside and the woman and other customers poured out into the street to watch. Alistair joined them, keeping close to the woman, demanding in her ear above the noise; “What’s happening?”

“The Army are arresting the D.G.S. It is good, the sons of bitches! And my father-in-law will be arrested, too, for he is also a D.G.S. man. Ha-ha!” The last was said with much glee and her two chins shook as she laughed. They watched as the men who had so lately been questioning the journalist were edged into waiting cars and driven away. Excitement buzzed all around him.

He sighed in frustration as he walked back to the Tivoli Hotel where he was staying, noting the happiness on some faces and the concern on others. As he turned towards the entrance, a voice at his elbow spoke.

“Take the taxi, please, Senhor Alistair.”

He glanced around instantly, but could not make out, of the throng around him, who had spoken. However, he was not greatly surprised. He had only been told that he would be contacted; sometime, somewhere. There was a black Peugeot with a lime green roof waiting at the kerb with the nearside rear door open. Alistair hesitated, then walked over to it, his stomach tight with anticipation. He slid in and shut the door. The taxi moved away smoothly. The driver was black, with heavy, rounded shoulders. The man in the rear seat with him was white, slightly built, with a sharp, intense face that remained unsmiling as Alistair looked at him enquiringly.

“My name is Smuts, Mr. Alistair,” he said in a flat voice and the journalist was sure that his name was not Smuts. “I am sorry that your stay has not been too pleasant, so far. But interesting, surely? As you can see, things are changing in Mozambique. The people of this country will soon be free of the yoke of Portuguese tyranny. Sorry, does that sound trite? However, the zephyrs of dissatisfaction are becoming the winds of change. The rule of the last four hundred and seventy years is at last at an end. If there is no outside interference, that is. How much was explained to you in London?”

The man kept his gaze on the journalist. Alistair lit a cigarette without asking permission and was perversely pleased when he detected a twitch of annoyance in the man’s almost expressionless face. Alistair needed a drink. The sweat beaded on his round face and he wound down the window, welcoming the slight breeze. He thought back.

A woman had come to see him at his Chelsea apartment, the day he got back from Zurich, where he had been to interview, and attack, an agency that was recruiting mercenaries for the FNL.A. freedom fighters in Angola. He was strongly against outside interference with the internal affairs of emergent African nations; he fought it in his articles in the major papers of the Western World and his views were well known. So it was no surprise when the woman had asked him how he would react if he knew that South Africa was sending troops to Mozambique to fight Frelimo. Personally, he disliked her bombastic attitude, but had been prepared to listen.

Can it be proved, he had asked her, because it was the first time that he had heard of the allegation. No-one would believe it, she had said, unless someone of international repute, such as himself, saw it personally. Would he be prepared to go there? His fares and expenses would be paid, naturally. And a retainer of five hundred pounds. He would have gone, anyway, he reflected, but the retainer made him suspicious. He was going to be used, and the only people that might throw in such a persuader would have other motives besides the welfare of Mozambique. The new colonialists, maybe, who would like a foothold in Africa, from behind the Iron Curtain, or the Bamboo one? Still, it would be interesting to see if there were really South African troops there, although he didn’t think that they were that stupid. And he was also keen to see for himself to what degree these other forces had a hand in the emerging embryo that was the new Mozambique. With a bit of luck, he could get back with the whole story. The money would be useful, too. As a freelance, his income was irregular and things had got very tight after his recent divorce. He had agreed to go.

“Just that there are supposed to be South African troops in Mozambique and that it can be arranged to see them. Nobody else has, as yet.” His shirt was sticking to his back and he leaned forward to allow the breeze to cool it.

The man, who sounded like a South African, himself, allowed himself a slight smile.

“Except for the freedom fighters they are trying to kill. Yes, it will be arranged for you to see them. But let us get one thing perfectly clear. You have probably been warned, but I must stress this again: you must not in any circumstances divulge this meeting of ours, or any further meetings, or any details of the people that have arranged this for you. You have the intelligence to realise that you could endanger the lives of many people if you should contact anyone before you leave the country. So you can understand that your life is of less consequence than the security of this matter. Forgive me, but you will be closely watched and you will not try to ’shake your tail’ as they say.” The man called Smuts watched him closely. Alistair tried to ignore the cold slime that seemed to cling to his back.

“I am accustomed to being threatened, sometimes by the very causes that I champion,” he said with almost no tremor in his voice, “but I haven’t been noted for taking much notice of them, have I? Or have you not done your homework?”

Smuts’ mouth tightened, but he nodded. “We are only hopeful that you will help bring the world’s attention to bear on the interference of outside powers in the internal affairs of a struggling nation,” he said, pedantically. He handed Alistair an envelope from his breast pocket. “Here is your ticket and letter of permission to visit the war zone. You will fly to Beira tomorrow. You will go to the Hotel Ambassador where you have a booking. You will be contacted there.” He then said something to the driver and the taxi slid to a stop at the kerb, only ten metres from his hotel entrance. Alistair opened the door, stifling any reply and heaved himself out. He headed for a pavement table and ordered himself a double whiskey. He had heard that they made the whisky in Angola under some well known brand names, but it tasted okay and he downed it in two swallows. He ordered another.

 

*****

 

A taxi, identical to the one in which he had received his instructions in Lourenço Marques, took him from Manga Airport down a narrow road between two expanses of marshland, past the Estoril complex along the coast to Beira central. The Hotel Ambassador was a squat looking building, but air-conditioned and pleasant enough when you got off its windy, balcony-type corridors. He vaguely wondered if the driver of this taxi was also an employee, for he had seen no car following them. He dumped his meagre luggage in his room and headed for the bar on the top floor, determined that, if he was needed in a hurry, he would be too drunk to take any action.

In the days that followed, he went through the motions of a journalist interested in the war. There was the added slant of how the attitudes to the war may have changed since the coup. He bothered Army personnel until their Latin courtesy wore thin, he got a vague date to visit the battle zone subject to permission of the Army Command in the north. He suspected that he would never have to make use of it when Smuts met with him briefly to warn him that he could expect to be headed to the bush at any moment.

Beira was still agog with the news of the change of government, but Alistair soon heard of the deaths of the two estrangeiros and the attack by a hopped up madman on a visiting ichthyology professor and his wife. These facts swam around in his brain until they settled, like a mass of tadpoles; individuals, but part of a pattern. Could they be part of the reason that he was here? They were all apparently South Africans. He was here to show that South Africans were meddling in Mozambique. Anywhere else, he would have had the contacts to get background on any of these people involved in these tragedies, but here his hands were tied. Still, he reflected, no harm in going to see this professor fellow, sort of accidentally, like.

He sauntered out of his hotel and along the Avenida Paiva de Andrade in the direction of the docks, and the Hotel Zambeze. The street thronged with a multiracial conglomeration of humanity. Some black boys, barefooted and ragged, but well fed, worried tarriers at the pavement cafes to have their shoes polished. A man in sandals was getting annoyed with one persistent fourteen-year old, while other boys yelled encouragement to him. It was not yet ten o’clock, but the sun was hot in a cloudless sky.   Alistair whistled tunelessly. He crossed the street, dodging traffic of Landrovers and black-with-lime-green-roofed taxis. His tail that morning was a middle aged, squatly built mulatto man with a bored expression on his face. Alistair paused at the cinema on the banks of the winding Rio Chiveve to see what was showing. ‘Cabaret’ – Liza Minelli and Michael York. He remembered that he had seen it in London three years before, remembered that he had had a fight with his wife and walked out half way through. He thought that if nothing got in the way, he would go and see it tonight. He sauntered along towards the steel bridge that crossed the Chiveve, near the railway station and stopped to watch the boats. Presently, he made his way to the Moulin Rouge windmill and eyed its gay but faded paintwork. The doors were closed and uninviting. He walked slowly down a back street lined with workshops and warehouses until he was past the Hotel Zambeze. Hesitating, he looked at his watch. He seemed to be in a quandary, then he shrugged and headed down an alley to the hotel. He went in. His tail hesitated then sat on a parapet outside. Alistair went back to try and entice him in for a drink.

He mimed. “Drink, you know, cerveja!” The man licked his lips and shook his head, doubtfully. He touched his own skin and then his frayed clothes and gestured at the plush hotel. Abruptly, Alistair’s face lit up and he fished out a one hundred escudo note.           “Go have a drink somewhere else, then.” he gestured. “Meet me back here at midday, okay?” He pointed at his watch.

The man’s face brightened, his eyes on the money. He took it with profuse thanks and backed away. Alistair went back into the lobby. The air-conditioning hit him and he shivered with relief. He went to the lounge and sat in a soft chair where he could see who came and went, but could not, himself, be seen from the street.

A group of young Rhodesians were drinking beer on the veranda, laughing loudly at something someone had said.

“And make it quick, Kaffir,” one of them said to the waiter that had just taken their order. The smartly dressed man with a green cummerbund gave no indication that he had understood, or even heard.

“Cut out that crap, Johnny, or you’ll get us locked up!” another admonished. Then one of them whistled. They all turned to watch a blonde in her twenties come into the lounge, followed by a tall, middle-aged man sucking on a pipe.

“That’s that Prof that shot that munt, a couple of days ago!” A loud whisper.

Alistair’s luck was in; they took seats near his own. The girl was tanned but he could still see the freckles which made her look younger than she probably was. Her face was intelligent and strong, attractive and also compassionate, he thought. The man was showing grey, but he moved with no wasted action. The journalist sensed an athlete, despite the spectacles and the intellectual look. He got up and crossed to them.

“Excuse me, Sir, Ma’am? I’m a journalist.” He spoke softly so that the youths on the nearby veranda could not hear him. My name’s John Alistair, from London. Would it be presumptuous of me to ask to join you both for awhile?”

Brand eyed him for a moment, speculatively, and then stood to take the proffered hand.

“Hanekom. This is my wife, Jean. Won‘t you take a seat?”

Alistair gestured for a waiter and insisted on buying the drinks. He and the Professor had whisky, Jean had a coke.

“Won’t you tell me what happened when this African attacked you? I’m sorry, you needn’t, if you don’t want to – you must have told it so many times.”

“We have,” Hanekom smiled, “to the Police, several times, to the local journalists, to half the residents of the hotel and several people on the street! So, once more won’t matter.” He gave Alistair the same version, briefly.

“I find it exceedingly strange that a professor and his wife should both be armed, Professor. Is Africa such a dangerous place, these days?”

“Indeed! The incident proves that we are correct in being a bit cautious. Most whites on this continent have a firearm somewhere near at hand. Our actions and decisions are mostly governed by caution. By fear, if you like. As an outsider, you may find it hard to understand our feeling of insecurity, but Communism, Black Power and the World Opinion, often ill informed, are nibbling away at us, our stability. They would wrest our country from us. So, we live in fear.”

“But South Africa is a rich and stable country. Surely there is enough there for all to share?”

“Equality is what it boils down to,” Jean said. “Equal rights, equal opportunities? Some animals are more equal than others. What we do not have is equal numbers, Mr. Alistair. So, people of some responsibility, call them Europeans and Indians, if you like, would be swamped by people that, thus far, are proving to be less responsible. Zambia, Kenya and so on, have not yet proved to be a great economic success. The economy of our country will grind to a halt and it will take generations to recover, to stamp out the inevitable corruption. Britain and others would be dishing out assistance and loans that they won’t get paid back and the tribes will fight each other for control. Chinese and Russians will quietly step in with arms and promises…”

“Come, now, Mrs. Hanekom! You over dramatise the situation, surely? Nothing as drastic as that will happen.”

The professor looked at his wife with interest, almost with amusement, as Jean replied.

“It’s already happening, Mr. Alistair. None so blind…” she smiled to take the barb out of it. The conversation continued in the same vein for awhile then turned to fish and the professor’s work; then at five to twelve, Alistair excused himself. He was walking somewhat unsteadily through the entrance when he caught a glimpse of Smuts. His tail was waiting outside looking very upset. Perhaps Smuts had torn a strip off him?

That had indeed been the case, as Smuts told him when they met with high drama that afternoon.

He received a note to meet at the Chin Won restaurant, urgently. He took a taxi to the Rua Correia de Brito and the driver pointed it out. The dumpy old proprietor beckoned him to a door behind the till counter. He found a furious Smuts waiting in the room beyond.

“What the hell do you think you are doing, Alistair?” Smuts nearly choked with rage, “What were you saying to that man at the Zambeze?” He whipped a small calibre automatic Beretta from his pocket and pointed it at Alistair’s ample stomach.

The latter shrivelled inside, but he stepped forward into the weapon and commanded angrily; “Put that thing away, Smuts! I am a journalist! Two days ago, those people were attacked in their hotel room by a dope-crazed madman. The whole of Beira is still talking about it! It would be highly suspicious if I did not interview them, for God’s sake!”

Smuts was a picture of indecision, and then the muzzle pulled back. “Are you sure that’s all you talked about?”

Alistair was sweating freely and it wasn’t the heat.

“That and why the South Africans think they have to go about armed and the foothold of Communism in Africa and why parrot fishes change colour with age. Why the fuss? I certainly did not tell them the real reason why I am here. Who are they, that you are so paranoid?”

Smuts put the gun away, battling with his doubts.

“Okay,” he said finally, “I’m sorry. Just don’t go near them again. We think they may be South African security people. We don’t know why they are here, but we don’t like it and they must know nothing of your mission. As it is, they must know your reputation for championing the non-interference by other powers in the sovereignty of developing nations and will wonder what you are doing here. They still have no reason to connect -” He broke off, fearing that he had said too much. “Please confine yourself to your room from now on and you are forbidden to telephone anyone, whatsoever.”

Mozambique, a sovereign state? Alistair nearly laughed out loud.

“Won’t that be more suspicious, a journalist that stays in his room for days?” He allowed himself the luxury of a little scorn.

“Not for days,” Smuts said. “You will fly to Blantyre in Malawi, tomorrow. You will be taken south to the border where you will join a band of Frelimo who have been in contact with the South African forces recently. When you have seen enough to persuade you that what we say is true, you will fly from Blantyre back to London, via Johannesburg. I shall be with you.”

The last was another warning, thought Alistair. He thought that there was probably more of a story behind the story. He would keep his senses tuned. Smuts opened the door for him and summoned the Chinese who in turn called a mulatto who got the instruction to make sure that the journalist went straight to his hotel and stayed there.

 

EIGHTEEN

When Alistair left, Smuts drove back to his apartment and phoned da Silva at the Hotel Zambeze. He spoke in English.

“All set up. He leaves tomorrow and should be in position by noon, Thursday. So, drop them at six on Friday morning, as we planned. I’ll come over at eleven, tonight and we’ll go over the details and finalise everything. Arrange a call to the camp for a quarter past so that I can talk to the Colonel. Got that?”

Da Silva curtly said that he had and rang off. The man calling himself Smuts narrowed his eyes and made a mental note that José needed a talking to. He showered, got a 2M beer from the fridge and lay down naked on the bed. He sipped and went over the plan again. Nothing could go wrong. Or everything could go wrong. Perhaps this journalist might get suspicious. Of what? Nobody knew about the mercenaries. As tourists, they had left the country again. They would never be seen again, except where they were meant to be seen. Dead, in South African uniforms. Smuts would keep the journalist under control. The other side of things seemed simple enough, but that was up to da Silva. He didn’t doubt his loyalty, only his competence. Still, the girl would be with him in the plane and she was a ruthless cookie, all right. Quite a woman, that! He thought that she would be a tiger in bed, too. At their first meeting, there had been some current between them, he had felt. She had made it plain that she was interested, if he was.  Da Silva said that she’d been screwing one of the mercenaries to help lure them here. He had seemed quite annoyed about that.

Smuts smiled, but it was a pity that some of the South Africans had been knocked off. More would have been more convincing. One was Clement White, he had heard. He remembered a Clement White from his days at University in Durban, when he had still used his real name of Bosch. He had been employed to foment the riots there, and then when things got too hot, he had escaped to Swaziland, then London. He had joined the Anti-Apartheid League, but soon found them too tame and ceased to go to meetings after he met a Chinese lad who had promised a much more active opposition to the white regimes in Southern Africa. He painfully read through the little Red Book that James Won lent him, then, when they met again, he threw it at him.

“What a load of crap, James!”

James roared with laughter. “Tonight, you will meet some friends of mine.” It had developed from there and, three years later, here he was, still working for them in Mozambique. He was well paid for his work, into a Swiss bank account, but his heart and loyalty were in it, too. He operated a small import/export business from an apartment in Lourenço Marques and this one in Beira. The Chin Won restaurant was connected to his

Employers; in fact, the old man was some sort of uncle to James Won. In Lourenço Marques, there was a large textile factory owned and run by other members of their group. Both the Russians and the Chinese were sending arms into the country. Smuts felt that the enterprises were more commercial than political and were embedding themselves to both push the inevitable change and be in position to take advantage of it when it happened.

He was a natural linguist; spoke fluent Portuguese, three indigenous languages and passable Mandarin. He knew several of the Frelimo leaders, personally, and he had developed a network that spread the length of the country that fed Frelimo with information such as troop movements, shipments of supplies and arms and the like. One of his biggest headaches was the lack of co-operation between those leaders, and he was often called on to liaise. The Maconde, of the north, for instance, some of the fiercest fighters to be found, would tolerate no orders except from a Maconde leader.

But, in his chameleon way, Smuts had had contacts in the D.G.S. and he was thought by them to be a reliable businessman, keen on keeping the existing status quo. He allowed himself a smile and thought again of the imminent operation. In a week, the country would be in flames, free of the Portuguese yoke, have taken their freedom and not been given it. Fence sitters would now also rise up when they saw which way it was going. Right across the sub-continent, the people would rebel as they saw what was happening in Mozambique.

A week. There were still those weak links that might snap and jeopardise everything. One was the ‘survivor’ who would ‘talk under pressure’. The mercenary was being given a very fat sum, indeed, but he may suspect that he might not live to spend it. He shrugged, these possibilities would be dealt with as they arose, and his thoughts passed on to the other man who expected not only to survive, but to become an extremely rich man, van Rooyen, or Sanderson, as he thought they knew him. The powerful radio set had been completed and installed. He had been stupid to go it alone for, when he had activated the mines placed in ‘Operation Insurance” and the Portuguese military was pierced through its heart, he had nothing else to give them. True, they would lose the half million dollars they had already given him that was salted away safely in Swiss banks, but he expected a further half million. Unfortunately for him, he was a virtual prisoner as he didn’t know that Smuts would not protect him.

And what of Barros? He had known him to be a ruthless businessman with interests in almost every activity in the country from hunting safaris, shipping, coconut and cashew nut plantations, cotton, sugar, to timber mills and marble mines, but he had crumpled the day they threatened to knock off his daughter, Rosa da Silva. He was a puppet, now. José da Silva and Manuela Barros had been part of the network for years, even before Smuts came on the scene, although they had not known about him, for a long time. It was Manuela’s idea that da Silva should marry Rosa, although José preferred little boys. It gave da Silva a lot of influence, being part of the powerful Barros family. It was Smuts idea to get in the mercenaries for Barros’ Army, and Manuela who had implemented it. When things seemed to be coming apart, it was the ruthless Manuela who suggested that they take control of the Barros resources by kidnapping Rosa and holding that axe over her father’s head. It was something that worried Smuts, this total treachery of Manuela’s regarding her father and family. He wondered what was behind it. The dossier he had read on her was no help. She had been born in Mozambique, educated in Portugal. Had her first parachute descent at the age of fifteen and her private pilot’s license by the time she was seventeen. By the time she was twenty-one, she was an army parachuting instructor. As a child in Lourenço Marques, she had been befriended by a Chinese business associate of her father’s, Lee Chong, who was in textiles. Lee was Smuts’ superior, in Mozambique and it was said that he had been at the spying game for thirty years of more. Yes, of course it would have been Lee who had recruited the adventurous Manuela, but that did not explain the totally hard core she seemed to have. Or was Smuts missing something?

As he thought of Manuela and that beautiful body of hers, he began to fantasise. He watched his member begin to rise from his naked thighs and reached for the telephone. Little Rosetta would do in the meantime, he thought, and she was a lot closer.

To be continued…

 

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