Closer To God
The Beach Africa hostel was nothing like other beach hotels I had frequented, up and down the coastal regions of Africa. We drove into to a collected bunch of what seemed like high school students, waiting for their school bus. Our Pajero was missing a lot of glass, which attracted a little attention, but, as we climbed from the vehicle, no one questioned or interdicted us. I opened the back hatch, intending to help Helen from the vehicle. I saw immediately that that was not going to work. She was just too messed up, mentally and physically. Some piece of feminine clothing was tightly wrapped and knotted around her upper left arm. She smiled weakly up at me. I felt guilty. The four women were not road warriors. They were just regular kids, tougher and more experienced than most, but still kids. And I had used them for our own purposes to a bloody outcome.
Leaving Anice to look after her, the rest of us waded through the crowd to arrive at some desks set against the wall of a large tiled room. African artifacts, looking like Walmart imitations, adorned the walls. I noticed that everyone was white, and frowned. I didn’t really mind, but it seemed uncommon for where we were. The small fishing village we’d had to work our way through to get to the hostel had been just the opposite. All local. No whites or foreigners.
The young lady checking us in was Irish, and cute as a button. An eighteen year old button, if that. Everything was ‘grand.’
“This is grand. Almost everyone has checked out. How many banda’s do you want?”
“Three,” I said, a bit taken up with all the youthful good cheer going on all around me. I looked over my shoulder when I handed her several of the five thousand shilling notes. It would be hard for the police to get a line on us where we were, but any of the residences nearby the recent shooting would be able to describe the Pajero with a missing windshield.
“Can we park around back to unload? I asked the Irish lass, returning my attention to her. When we came in I had noticed how thick the brush grew, just beyond the the Beach Africa compound.
“That’ll be grand,” she replied, “and each banda is only three hundred shillings a day, sir,” the woman said, holding out several of the notes in her right hand.
“Keep’em,” I responded. “We’ll be staying a while.” We wouldn’t be but I wanted no money problems from the hostel haunting us while we were there.
She handed me three forms to fill out. I scrawled across all of them using the writer Ben Johnson’s name, artist as occupation and Great Britain as country of origin.
When I completed the forms I handed them back and waited, hand in my pocket, in case there was going to be a need for more shillings. But the young lady didn’t ask for any identification or proof.
“Where are the rooms?” I asked. The Irish lass looked up at me without responding. “I mean, how do we find the bandas we’re staying in?” I re-phrased.
“Oh, grand, here’s a map.” She quickly circled the three northernmost small squares on a poorly copied piece of printing paper. I was relieved. We could drive the Pajero through the bush, and then unload out of sight, unless there were obstacles I was unaware of.
I turned to the group assembled behind me. “Back in the car, we’ll drive around back and unload.”
“You can do what you want. I’m walking,” Joan said. “Sam will get my bag.”
Sam beamed, as if he had received some sort of high compliment. Joan headed out the back of the building toward the visible pool and beach beyond. Her expensive slacks and day coat marked her as out of place and overdressed, but attractive as hell.
The rest of us loaded back into the SUV and drove through the brush. It was thick brush but no match for the brute force of the big vehicle. It took half an hour to unload everything and get Helen into one of the bandas. The single rooms, each with a bathroom and running water, were not large, but after packing into the cabin on the train they seemed bright and spacious.
Sam, Burt and I gravitated to the innermost of the bandas, automatically understanding that the women would arrange themselves in ways we neither understood nor cared about. Once settled I motioned both to sit and listen.
“We need a new vehicle. They’re going to be looking for our’s and we can’t move anywhere quickly with no windshield. We’ve got to make it over to Shimo la Tewa prison, then down to the ferry. Rafiq is probably on the ferry running back and forth.” I stopped, waiting to see if both men were getting what I was saying.
“What of the woman?” Burt stated, his voice flat, his distaste for Joan palpable.
“We need the DCM,” I replied. “She’s a major diplomat and not to be screwed with by the authorities. We also left a little mess back there in town.”
“You left a mess,” Sam said, unexpectedly, then cleared his throat, as if he had spoken out of turn. I noted his failure, for the first time, to use the word ‘sir.’
“Yes, I left a bit of a mess, following a single shot that could have gone right through your cranium instead of Helen’s arm.”
“Yes, sir!” Sam said, falling back into the rigid behavior required by the Corps when in the presence of an officer. Except I wasn’t a officer in the Marine Corps. The edge to his voice when he’d made the first statement made me uncomfortable, as if his opinion of me from other knowledge was significantly less than what he’d led me to believe earlier. I filed away my thoughts and feelings about the subject for later reference.
“And I’ve got to call in. We can’t proceed further without the Agency. We just don’t have the assets and we’re going to run into the local authorities at some point. The Agency doesn’t have a clue about any of this. I’ve got to bring them in. People are dying over what this is about. The Agency comes in or we get the hell out, no matter how we felt about Smith.” I took a seat on the edge of the bed to wait. I wasn’t running a real mission and I could only make believe for so long. There was terminal risk for all involved, as had been graphically proven. The players deserved to be heard.
“I’m in,” Burt said, almost before I was done speaking. He pulled out the nine millimeter and then disassembled it on the rug in front of a canvas drawer dresser. I looked at Sam.
“I ride for the brand,” he stated, his eyes boring into my own. The expression seemed self-explanatory, but I wondered what he considered the ‘brand’ to be. There was a depth to the young man I could not plumb, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sitting in a banda on the beach. He seemed awfully young to be as cool as he appeared. The blowing out of the Pajero’s windshield hadn’t affected his driving one bit, and he’d been completely emotionless about Helen’s violent injury. Both of those reactions didn’t seem to fit behavior when stacked agains Sam’s age or innocent demeanor.
Burt moved to the sink, cradling the pieces he had laid out on the floor. He threw them into the basin, then ran hot water and started to scrub them. Hot water and soap.
I hadn’t seen an operational weapon cleaned with soap and water since training, although it made complete sense. I presumed that the huge man had a bottle of gun oil squirreled away somewhere in his wrappings. Walking to his side I pulled the AMT out and set it next to the sink. I knew he’d want to clean that as well. It was nice to work with another thinking professional, but I said nothing, knowing that Burt would not want to hear a compliment about something he so took for granted.
“I’m taking a walk on the beach. I’ll be back after the call.” I looked at both men after I spoke. Sam leaned down to go through his pack. Burt worked away on the gun parts, ignoring me.
The beach was not much of a beach. Further north there was a real hotel called the Serena. I could see where the beach expanded and grew into a thick strip of white sand in that direction. I walked on sand that was mixed with small chunks of rough rock. The water breaking along the shore broke on hard flat rock, not sand. The Beach Africa could have been more aptly described as the Rock Africa, but, of course, that would never have worked. I dialed the international number.
I was put straight through to Tony, my control officer.
“What do we owe the privilege of this communication?” he inquired.
“This isn’t a secure line,” I began, telling him something I knew he already knew. No cell phone discussions anywhere in the world were secure. I was alerting my control that there was more information backing what I was going to say than I could communicate. I filled him in, omitting the name of the organization of the men who’d opposed us, as well as the train incident. I did mention Sierra Leone, and later diamonds, in a passing way. He caught the connection right away, however.
“Alright, he agreed. Pursue this stone thing. I’ll send a couple of drones down from the consulate in the morning, for your ferry transit at nine local.”
Ferry transit meant the isolation and questioning of our Lebanese contact, Rafiq, I knew. His mention of that interrogation without my bringing it up told me that he was closer in touch with our situation than he was telling me. And his mention of ‘stones’ told me what the Agency was really interested in. Smith was dead, but the diamonds were part of a living mystery to be solved.
I asked for more money.
“Twenty, but no more Charlie Delta. Do you understand me?” he asked. Charlie Delta was alphanumeric code for the letters C and D. Collateral Damage. Twenty meant that the men he was sending would bring twenty thousand in U.S. cash with them when they came.
“You want me to play this or do you want me to whistle Dixie?” I asked. I hated collateral damage although it seemed to follow me around like a recurring case of the common cold. Tony and I liked one another for different reasons, although neither he nor I appreciated our respective senses of humor. He hung up without responding.
I passed in front of Joan’s banda. I knew it because she was sitting outside of its sliding glass doors in a cheap plastic chair. I walked up, and then sat in the chair next to her.
“What are you planning?” she asked, without preamble.
“Visit the prison today. The ferry tomorrow. Need a rental car.
You’re the obvious choice. You’re not going to be on anyone’s radar. Not yet, at least.
Got a credit card?”
She looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Where do I go down here to get a rental?” she asked.
“You and Sam can catch a cab back to the Intercontinental. They have an agency right on site,” I answered. “Why are you really here?”
She didn’t say anything for a minute or so. I waited, watching the waves impact on the rock shore, and then wash up to the thin layer of sand, time after time.
“I don’t know. There’s something about all this. Something about you.
How do you assemble all these people to do your bidding? Those women think you’re some sort of heroic figure. How do you do that?”
It was my turn to remain silent for awhile. I had no good answer. A sales guru had once told me that the most effective salesperson was a conscious competent person.
Most people were unconscious incompentents. I didn’t like the feeling that, about what Joan was speaking of, I might be an unconscious competent. But I had no ready answer for her question.
“The cause is just. People follow a just cause,” I finally answered. And the answer felt good, until she spoke again.
“They don’t have any idea what the cause is. It’s a hell of a lot more than a just cause. How are you going to get rid of them? Even shooting them doesn’t seem to dim their enthusiasm.”
“I’ll work on it while you’re gone,” I replied, avoiding further discussion altogether by changing the subject. “You can’t come to the prison. A woman, like yourself, would stick out like a sore thumb. Burt and I will be bad enough.”
“Where is the prison?” she asked, not arguing with my decision, at least.
“Two miles from here, if that, by the inlet to the north. It’s about the most modern structure on this part of the coast. There’s a courthouse attached. We’ll go there to see what we can rake up, for a bit of cash.”
“I’ll get a car. If you keep building this entourage we’ll need a bus.” She smiled for the first time when she said the words.
“So you came down here for me?” I ventured.
“You’ve changed something in the fabric of the universe here. I don’t know what. I still don’t like what you do. I think your heart is good, however, yet I’m not altogether happy with that conclusion. Sometimes you seem so directly dumb, and then you seem brilliant.” She raised one hand in a gesture of helplessness.
“Idiot Savant, I think its called,” I interpreted for her.
“There’s nothing idiotic about you at all, so no,” she replied, rising from her chair.
“I’m going to check on Helen. I think she’s fine though. Happy to have been shot during an adventure in Africa. You’ve twisted her mind in some god-awful manner.”
“Like yours?” I asked, to her departing back. She didn’t turn.
It took almost three hours for Sam to show up at the banda with a rental rig.
I was impressed. It was an aging Range Rover. V8 power. Large and Heavy. The gas mileage of an Abrams tank but air conditioned and extremely comfortable. Sam, Burt and I drove the short distance up Highway B8 to the prison. There was no missing it, as it was the only multi-story structure along the highway.
Same wheeled the Rover into a parking lot the size of two football fields, that sat in front of the main building. Most of the cars parked were clustered near the far end, closest to the bridge running in a high arc over the inlet.
“That’s got to be the court building,” I pointed out to Sam. He pulled the vehicle in among all the other cars. There were no Rovers. It was far too expensive a vehicle for most indigenous citizens to own, or even rent.
“Well, sir, what now?” he asked, turning the ignition off. I twisted in my leather seat to look back at Burt.
“We go in, find a contact, and then pursue whatever lead he might be able to give us. I don’t know what we’re looking for. Better strip down. No weaponry. They might have detectors all over the place in there. It’s pretty modern for this part of the world.” I looked at the structures we were in front of. The place looked modern for almost anywhere we might be in the world, I realized. It had to be American built. America builds great prisons.
“Stand by, nothing more. Stay alert. Use your head,” I said to Sam.
I waited for Burt to strip down in the back seat.
“Ready,” he said, finally. “When small bands of English soldiers were sent into the breach against the French cannons, what were they called?” he asked, getting out of the passenger door of the Rover.
I thought for a moment. Cornwell’s Sharp series came to my mind.
“The Forlorn Hope,” I answered.
“Roger that,” he whispered, as we walked together toward the imposing structure.