Closer To God
Diamonds and Rust
I carefully removed five more one thousand shilling notes and presented them to Wendy.
“That’s about one fifth the average wage in Kenya. It ought to get us dinner served in this cabin, and, unless my judgment about such things is sadly flawed, your natural allure ought to count for something.”
Wendy took the money. I saw a glint flash from her eye under raised eyebrow. I wondered how much of the five thousand would end up in the hands of the crew. She and Dingo headed out into the aisle.
“Who are you two?” I asked the remaining women.
“I’m Helen and this is Anice,” the blondest of the two blonds said, waving one hand toward her companion.
“Where you from?” I asked, making conversation while I thought about everything that had happened to us since stepping aboard the train.
“Troy,” she said, noting my lack of real attention.
“Helen of Troy…neat,” I responded with a smile.
“Why don’t you two join your friends at finding us all something to eat?” I said. I held the door open. Anice went by me, her short curly hair so thick and tight it resembled Velcro. When they were out of the room I secured the one-sided deadbolt. I stood before Burt.
“Want to tell me about it?” I asked him, pointedly, my arms crossed. He watched the evening countryside go by for at least a full minute before answering.
“Ah, about what?” Burt answered, his tone evidencing both ignorance and innocence at the same time.
I frowned. I was not accustomed to my team members withholding information pertinent to the mission, nor on acting independently.
“The three bad guys you forced to leap from the train. Take a close look at the window next to you. They’re safety latched, but you’d play hell at getting them open far enough to squeeze a full grown American through without using a lot of time and tools. Then there’s the terminal nature of what would have likely happened to guys. I don’t think you’d send three men to their deaths that way. I know something about you now. You didn’t force them from the window, so where are they?”
I watched Burt consider. I was determined not to be surprised at whatever he came up with. I didn’t know what had happened to our pursuers, but I knew Burt was lying about whatever had happened.
“I’m sorry, “ Burt apologized, But this isn’t a mission you know. Not anymore. I don’t have to report to you or do what you tell me. We’re on our own. I said I threw them off the train to impress the lassies. I haven’t been with a woman for awhile.” His eyes left mine to roam again across the moving Savannah.
In spite of myself, I was surprised. Burt was impressing young women while three guys, apparently still on the train somewhere, were trying to kill us for unknown reasons. I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to respond to that part of what he’d said, so I ignored it.
“Where are they?” I said instead, getting right to the point.
“Back in their cabin. Just like I left ‘em. One has a broken ankle and the other two broken wrists. They don’t have any guns. I threw their cell phones out the window.” Burt offered the last as if it made up for his earlier lie.
I glared at him, getting control of myself before speaking.
“This is a mission and I’m the mission commander, unless you don’t want to survive. We’re not going to get through this by trying to impress young women. We won’t live long doing stupid things like throwing their cell phones away either. Those phones had numbers and identities on them. Now you either accept that or you’re on your own. And, if you accept it, I don’t want any more of this crap. I make the decisions, on everything. That’s what I do. You implement those decisions in the manner I tell you to. That’s what you do. And you don’t keep anything from me. Got it?”
My voice had dropped in both tone and volume. Burt and I were in more trouble than I could calculate. I needed him, but I could reasonably survive without him. On his own, he wouldn’t last another day.
Helen of Troy’s voice could be heard through the solid wood door. She had one of those irritating nasal voices, but her looks were so great you tended not to notice when in front of her. I waited, my hand on the deadbolt, staring back at Burt.
“Alright. It’s a mission. I’ll do my part.” This time Burt's tone was sincere, but I didn't know what to think. However, Burt was all the team I had.
I twisted the small brass knob. Four women filled the cabin, settling onto bunks and floor as if a gaggle of geese looking to forage.
“It’s done,” Wendy stated, proudly. “They’re bringing dinner in about an hour, between the early servings. I couldn’t understand their word for the meat.
I think its called Punda.”
“Punda milia,” I added, instantly sorry I’d spoken up. The words translated into striped ass or Zebra.
“Means beef, I think,” I recovered, looking over at Burt, who was staring at Dingo too intently to pay attention to me.
“About the sleeping arrangements,” I began, but got no further. Obviously, the Earth Mother’s had discussed more than dinner when they had gone to the dining car.
“You’re sleeping in my bunk. I’ll stay on the floor with Helen. Burt can have the padded bench, with Dingo on the floor next to him.” Wendy’s rapid delivery gave away the preparedness of her comments.
There was silence in the room. The earlier arrangements discussed had seemed to include a whole lot more than just sleeping, but the amended plan suited me perfectly. The last thing any of us needed was more complexity, although I could not ignore the fact that the small room was going to occupied through the night by four attractive females and two men who had not known many women of late.
“The train is likely to stop soon,” I informed them. “While its stopped would be a good time to have dinner served. I’ll try to time it right,” I said, gesturing toward Burt to accompany me. Wendy frowned, but asked no questions.
“Wine, you have more wine. Might as well trot it out. We’ll be right back.”
I slipped out into the passageway with my last words hanging in the air. We didn’t need company with what we were about, and the Earth Mothers were just a bit too bright and adventurous. Keeping them from participating in anything would not be accomplished with force. Especially not since I’d allowed one of them to become armed. Our current and continuing presence in their lives was a risk to them, however, and I would not overlook it.
Burt led our passage through the dining car. I marveled at the old world charm of the décor. Red leather, deep brown wood and polished glass. It resembled some Hollywood director’s idea of what a dining car should look like, rather than what you would expect to find in a third world country. Eating in the cabin would be much less entertaining, but a whole lot more secure.
We made our way to the last car. We reached the last door, which Burt plunged right through, his weapon out and raised. I noted that the lock had been shot away, just like the one in our door.
Three men were in the room. Two sat on one lower bunk, opposing us, and the remaining man sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall. With the bunks down, there was not much floor space in a Fourth Class cabin. Burt moved deep enough into the space to allow me to sit on the lower bunk, across from the two men.
“Who are you gentlemen?” I asked, no threat in my voice. Burt’s gun was out and ready, but mine still in my pocket. They looked at me. The man on the floor had the broken angle. It was evident from off angle of the bones. The other two had wrapped wrists. One right wrist. One left wrist.
“Left handed?” I asked Burt, pointing at the appropriate man, but his attention was on the three men.
“Who are you people?” I inquired again. None of the three answered, each looking from one to the other.
I noted the very bottom of a tattoo sticking out from under the short sleeve of the one with the broken right wrist. I stepped carefully over the broken ankle of the floor positioned one. I pulled the sleeve gently upward. The tattoo was in blue. It was of the head of a water buffalo. Then I noted the age of the man. He was not young. Older than I, all three of them were, and I was old for the business.
“Thirty-two Battalion?” I asked. The man nodded once.
“Shit,” I mouthed to myself.
“What is it?” Burt asked, gauging the regret in my tone.
“Thirty-two Battalion is the old Boer Commando outfit, disbanded in 1993, I think. It was pretty hot shit. All three of you?” I pointed at the other two. I received no answer.
“Burt here will be glad to take your shirts off, and then break your remaining joints,” I offered. The one who had signaled before did so again.
“Who are you with now?” I inquired, not expecting an answer. I waited, but I knew I was wasting my time. The situation could only play out in one of two possible ways. Either the men were actually going to jump from the train, at high speed with their injuries, or they were going to see reason. I could only play the cards I had been dealt. I couldn’t change them.
“Okay. Have it your way. I don’t expect much. I know you guys. I was a United States Marine. I have a mission to perform. Either Burt here tosses you off the train or you tell me whom you’re working for. I’ll work something out. It’s not much that I’m asking. No names. Not even what this is all about. “ I waited, while once again they looked at each other. They had to be mercenaries. They worked for the money, so their loyalty was not to a cause. But their habit patterns where from the old school, and it would near impossible to break them down. I was not willing to resort to physical torture, and I didn’t really have the equipment for such an operation anyway. Physical torture always works. On everyone. No single human is immune, or tough enough to ‘gut it out,’ as that is the province of movies and television. But it comes with a high price, for the tortured and the torturers. I’d tortured. I knew the price, and I was no longer willing to pay it.
“Aegis,” the man said, his voice low. “Diamonds. It is about diamonds.”
I sat back stunned. Aegis didn’t bother me. It was one of the mercenary companies operating out of London. There were bunches of them. But his volunteering of ‘diamonds’ perplexed me. Tea, textiles, coffee and a few other things were exported from Kenya. There were no diamonds. Not that anybody had ever found or reported on.
“Where,” I asked, not sure what I expected to hear. And what I got I did not expect.
“Freetown.” We cannot tell you more. Our families will never be paid if we tell you.”
I liked the fact that the man was thinking about the money Aegis would pay out to their families following death. I had their full attention. There was no Freetown in Kenya. There was a Freetown in a place that had a ton of diamonds, however. Sierra Leone. A shit-hole of a place. The unadvertised, unclaimed, and nearly unknown, poorest country in Africa, which was saying something.
“We cannot give you anything else. Do your will.” The man bowed his head. Without sharp instruments and a controlled environment I knew that I wasn’t going to get more.
“Lighten up, Francis,” I quoted from the movie Stripes. “You did what you were asked. Here’s the deal. I’m gonna pull the emergency stop.” I stood up and grabbed the single line running corner to corner near the top of the car. “The trains gonna stop. Only you three will be here. They’ll come in hordes once they figure out the cord was pulled in this room. Stopping the train is a First Class Felony in Kenya. You’ll be arrested, guarded, and taken to jail in Mombasa. When you get there one of you needs to confess that he did it. Claim drunkenness. The natives think all White Men are drunks. Or you can claim that you need medical care from the injuries you suffered fighting with one another. Once one of you confesses the others will be set loose. Strange Kenyan Justice. The two released can pay the fine for the felony, and then you can get some splints and treatment for your problems.” I stopped and looked at them carefully.
“If you don’t claim you did it, then there is going to be trouble. Burt here is going to take your going back on your word badly. You won’t survive this mission, I promise you. I want your word as an ‘Os Terriveis’” I stopped again. Portugal had contributed a lot of men to 32 Battalion, and had loaned it the name “Terrible Ones,” not without good cause.
“We agree,” the man said, this time without looking to the others for approval. I was giving them a rare gift, and the man seemed to understand. It would be safer to leave them for dead, strewn along the harsh landscape of the beautiful Savannah, then have them reaching their superiors to tell of their contact with us.
I pulled down hard on the cord. Squealing sounds came from the wheel brakes of our car. It was going to be a slow stop as the emergency cord only worked for the car it was pulled in. The train whistle blew long and loud. The crew had figured out that there was a problem.
I took out another ten thousand shillings and placed them firmly in the man’s good hand. “You’ll need this for the fine. They won’t take your cash when you’re in custody. Trust me, I know about custody in Kenya.” I then took my box of cigarettes out and offered one to each man. They sat there, each with a white tube sticking out of his mouth. Burt brought out a lighter and went slowly from man to man, keeping his suppressed automatic trained on each while he lit their smokes.
“Dankie,” the man said. Dankie is Afrikaans for thank you. He slipped the bills into his shirt pocket. Burt and I stepped out of the room, then made our way quickly back to the dining car, which was full. The non-stop train was slowing to a stop, which caused a lot of discussion from everyone around us as we made our way through.
“What if they try to lay it on us?” Burt asked, just before we reached the room.
“They’re screwed. Strange Kenyan Justice. They’re the ones in the room where the cord got pulled. The exact place is registered down by the side of the car, near the tracks. There’s no Crime Scene Investigation over here.”
“Will it work the way you told them?” Burt inquired, his voice evidencing skepticism.
“I lie when necessary Burt, but I’m not cruel. Those were brothers-in-arms, whatever path they’ve taken since, and, because of your ‘assistance’ they won’t be a problem for us anymore.” I didn’t mention any of the problems that might arise from they’re eventual report to higher ups.
Wendy welcomed us into the room, locking the door behind us. I noted another empty bottle of wine primly set against the far wall, where a partially filled one sat next to it.
“We’ve been wondering where you were. And the train is almost stopped, just like you said would happen. How did you do that? And, when are we going to get to Mombasa?”
I laughed at her tone and obvious gaiety rather than her comments.
“When is dinner served?” I asked. I was terribly hungry and so very tired. I looked up at Wendy’s upper bunk with longing.
“It’s coming. It’s coming, Wendy giggled, but first we want to sing you a song.
Dingo has a ukulele. It’s made from Koa wood carved in Hawaii."
I slunk down the wall between the bunks. I prayed that there were no more players aboard the Iron Snake. Our stopping had risk. Anyone paralleling the train on the Mombasa Road could use the opportunity to get aboard. We could only plan for so much, however.
The Earth Mother’s started their song, the words brining an immediate rye smile to my face: “Well, I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again…”
The song was a Joan Baez thing from many years in the past. I knew that the final words were: “…and if your offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid.” I hadn’t understood the phrase any of the times I’d heard it. I could never figure out what diamonds had to do with rust, since diamonds are a crystal and rust is, well, rust formed on iron. I listened to song, being sung by some of the toughest angels I’d ever come across, and I knew that diamonds and rust did indeed go together and that the amalgam was one of hardship and pain, just as delivered by the words of the song.