Closer To God
We're Going to Mombasa
We didn’t make it to the Railway Station, instead stopping the small van down around City Central near Kenyatta Avenue. The driver, conductor and two other teen passengers had remained silent during our trip, not that it would have made much difference with rock blasting from all the speakers. The conductor had rotated once to look at us, with attitude, but something about us had kept him from commenting, or doing anything else.
Burt and I were broke. We had to have cash, which meant we needed an ATM. A few businesses would take credit cards, but not many, even in a large developed city like Nairobi. Africa was third world, outside of a very few places. Our Teeny Matata plunged back into the ‘fishball’ of traffic as soon as we were out. I watched my Omega disappear with a glum expression.
“Got a cell phone?” I inquired of Burt, hoping that I had not been wrong about his over-supplied pack rat nature. I was not disappointed. He handed a small phone over to me.
“Will it work here?” I said, opening the Star Trek flip cover. I wasn’t sure why I’d asked the question, as I already knew the answer. Burt didn’t bother to reply.
I examined the phone. It gave the time of day in big numbers on the screen. I knew that young people did not even wear watches anymore. They got their time from cell phones. I wasn’t that young.
“Agency?” I went on.
“Safaricom chip,” Burt said back. That meant the phone was on a local system instead of any international. It was a relatively untraceable way to communicate, but I wasn’t thinking of calling anyone until we knew more of what we were involved with. Phone calls would give more information out than I was comfortable with. I wondered what other toys Burt had. The mission had been cadged together at the last minute. There had been no clearance meetings, or even initial planning sessions. Things like ingress, egress, communications, armament,
and even financing, had been thrust upon us instead of being homogeneously put together with forethought and design. I put the phone in my pocket. Now I had a bulge on each side, but high fashion was not something common to Eastern Africa.
“Braclays is over in Queensway House on Kuanda,” I pointed out.
I walked in that direction, looking around to see if any of our pursuers had picked us up. If they were Agency personnel we would not have much time on our own. The Agency was terrific at surveillance, and two white guys in downtown Nairobi would not be too hard to find no matter who was looking.
We walked into the lobby of the bank. There were private security guards stationed everywhere, including one on each side of a bank of ATMs. I inserted one of my Visa debit cards, punched in the four-digit code and hoped. Local shillings were all we were going to get from any ATM in the country, which was okay, except for the fact that the largest shilling note issued was for a thousand. With the exchange rate running at about seventy shillings to the dollar, that meant a
Thousand-shilling note was only worth about thirteen dollars.
I used four cards to get a total of sixty thousand shillings out of the machine. The stack of bills was over an inch thick. I shoved the folded wad into my back pocket and we headed for the door. Nine hundred bucks, or so, would have to do.
There was nobody noticeable on Kaunda Street, so we crossed to the Catholic Basilica. We went straight in through a huge gothic entrance. The place was straight out of the dark ages, with tourists gathered together in small guided clumps.
I took Burt all the way to the front of the huge old church and sat him in the front pew. Unconsciously, I genuflected before taking a seat next to him. The lighting was dim to the point of darkness. The place was perfect.
“Stay here. I’ve got to berth us aboard the train going east tonight.
I’m less noticeable alone. Whatever we ran into started down there, where Smith died, so we’re going back to the scene of the crime, if we live that long.”
I looked over at the big man, wondering what the hell he was doing. I was known for my rather unconventional behavior, which had gotten us into the mess we were in, but it was uncommon for wet workers like Burt to be anything but sticklers for following Agency directives and rules.
“What about the woman? You told her to meet us. You don’t think she’ll come?” Burt asked. I rubbed my forehead, thinking for a moment.
I do think she’ll come, but I don’t want to take her to Mombasa on this, not that she would go. I wanted her to meet us so I could talk to her about what she knows. We can’t drive all night down to Mombasa. We’d be sitting ducks on that rough road. The Agency has drones. We have to hope that whoever is after us will calculate that we’ll run to Jomo and fly out as quickly as we can.”
“We’re going to Mombasa?” Burt asked.
“Yes, we’ve got to get out of Nairobi.
“We’re going to Mombasa,” Burt repeated, this time with a strange tone of enthusiasm. I had more questions about his involvement but they could wait until we were on the train.
I left him there, heading of across the downtown common area for the station. I realized that I should have asked to see if he had a second phone, when the cell phone in my pocket rang. It was Burt.
“I have another phone. The number’s on the dialer, titled King Kong.”
I thought about his self-derived nickname he had given himself. I tucked away a thought to examine his phone to see what he’d chosen for me.
“Thanks,” I responded, not knowing what to say. The man was proving to be an enigma, like maybe a bear with human intelligence would be. Burt hung up. I waited until I was tucked into a corner alcove of the Kenya Bank, right across Haile Selassie Avenue from the station, and then flipped the phone open again. I called Staff Sergeant Stevens, hoping he was still around. I was compromising the cell phone by calling the Embassy, but I had little choice. I had to have more data. I did not believe that the Agency had sent men to kill me. It was just not done. There was no need. They could just recall me and lock me up any time they wanted. They didn’t need to kill field agents. They had worse punishments. Imprisonment and loss of retirement were much more feared punishments, and very commonly applied. In the final analysis, when Burt had been instructed to shoot me, he had refused. Field agents did not kill field agents. There was no career left to an agent who participated in such action, and we all knew it. It was not even entirely believable that he had been ordered to do such a thing.
“I can’t tell you anything at this point,” Stevens said, without preamble.
I held the phone out and stared at it for a second. Whether Burt’s phone was already target material, or whether Stevens had been waiting for an unknown call, I did not know, but there was no point asking. Stevens was a Marine, first and foremost, above wife, country and even God. It resonated through him.
“Is she coming?” I asked.
“Tower, in twenty,” he said, and then hung up.
I turned to my right and looked up at the tallest building in East Africa. The Times Tower. That was the tower. Twenty, in Marine parlance meant twenty minutes. She was coming. I was relieved, and intrigued, by her conduct. I hadn’t been absolutely sure that she would come. Not nearly as certain as I’d led Burt to believe.
Seeing no one of any consequence over at the long cinder block construct of a railway station, I crossed the street and entered the facility. I was always surprised that it was clean. Even the bathrooms were clean. And the rain earlier in the day had helped, giving the place a fresh, although local, scent. I went to the line of booths under a sign that said “Kenya Railroad Berthing Allotment.’ I could not help looking around suspiciously as I approached the attendant behind his bars.
“Two, first class cabin for Mombasa.”
The man looked at me, the black visor of his blue cap shined to a high luster. As a former Marine myself, I could tell that it was polished leather and not the fake Corfam junk. There was one train to Mombasa every night. It arrived there, from Nairobi, early in the morning. Tickets were booked in advance, and for cash.
“Papers,” the man said, primly, holding out one hand toward the slot under the bars.
I took out my wad of shillings, peeled off four of them, then slid them through the slot. The 1st class fare to Mombasa was posted on the chalk board behind the man. It said nine hundred shillings. I waited. He stared down.
“For two,” he said. “Private room with clean bedding and first service in the dining car.”
The money was gone when I looked down. I had not seen the man’s hands move. He took two tickets from a drawer, shoved them toward the slot, then looked behind him and made believe he was concentrating on something else. I let him, taking the tickets and walking back toward the platform, until I saw the woman.
A white woman stood out form the building, peering up and down the platform, as if looking for a train. But there was no train, nor would there be until the evening run was ready to be made at around seven. The events at the Safari Park had occurred so quickly and intently that I could not recall if the woman was the same as the one with the camera crew. But she was looking for something. And I knew I was being looked for. I went into the restroom without going out onto the platform. From a stall I called King Kong and filled him in, about the woman and about Joan’s pending arrival, now only fifteen minutes away. Burt’s analysis was better than mine. If the woman was there, then the others would be in the area. We decided that I would try for the Railroad Museum just north of the station.
Before leaving the bathroom stall I removed a full roll of toilet paper. I carried it with me in my right hand. The station was not crowded, which was unfortunate for my purposes, although no one gave me the slightest glance as I went out to the street side, gained the far edge of the building, and then darted across a twenty yard concrete expanse. The Railroad Museum was right there, with an old engine and cars lined up next to it. I hid behind the cars, kneeling to look up from under them. I did not observe any extraordinary interest or pursuit. After a five-minute wait, I did see the woman. She stood at the outside lip of the wooden platform. She gestured with one hand toward someone who seemed to be in the direction of my position, but I couldn’t see who she might be waving at. Finally, I went through the door into the museum.
The object of the woman’s attention was obvious once I was through the door. A large white male stood in front of me, his arms extending up and outward, as if to engulf me. Without thinking of the potential of terrible repercussions, my left hand went down. I brought the small forty-five up out of my pocket, flicked off the double-sided safety and walked right into the arms of the huge man. His attempt to grasp me never reached conclusion. I jammed the AMT into the side of the toilet paper roll, pressed the arrangement hard into his belly and squeezed the trigger.
The sound was not nearly as loud as I thought it would be. The toilet paper roll shredded, but the man, amazingly, did not go down. Instead he held both hands to his stomach, an awful expression of pain on his face and a mewling grown coming form his open mouth. I marveled. The man appeared to be made of something tougher than hide, gristle and hair.
I ran, using a casual lope, which covered ground quickly but made me look more like a jogger than someone running from something. The gun stayed clutched in my left hand, so small it was invisible to anyone who might have been looking my way. I could not have run with a two-pound chunk of metal in one front pocket. One thick hand waved from around the far side of the bank building, as I approached.
“What happened?” Burt asked, when I pulled up next to him, reseating the gun out of view.
“What in God’s name are you using for ammo?” I shot back. I had never known a forty-five round, at close range, fired into a man’s torso, to leave him standing and complaining0.
“Shot-shell,” Burt said, rather ruefully.
I waited, looking back around the corner for some sign of pursuit, but there was none. When my head swung back I spotted the Pajero across the side street, just pulling up to the steps of the Times Tower. Burt saw it to. We started out together while he talked.
“I load a cartridge of birdshot as the first round. In all my guns. I’ve had a few occasions where I shot the wrong guy. A few years back I decided that I’d rather apologize for causing pain and misery than live with the other result.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The man was demonstrating an application of intellect and good judgment that I had never seen from any gun or pyrotechnics expert I had ever met. His forethought had saved the day. There would be no unexplainable dead body at the museum. No Caucasian ‘tourist’ slain by terrorists or robbers. The man I had hit would be marginally injured and very likely ambulatory. No cordons. No investigations. Our train trip was still possible.
“What’s the second round, some sort of nuclear device?” I asked, not entirely kidding. Burt didn’t answer. We were upon the car, which was not driven by Joan.
A young blond male with short hair sat behind the wheel. I got in behind him, while Burt went around. The DCM was in the front passenger seat.
“Drive into the traffic,” I told the kid, assuming he was one of Steven’s Marines. Without a word he wedged us in among the Matatas, trucks, and other conveyances trying to get from Kenyatta onto Mombasa Road. I looked behind us, but could not make out anything, but realized we had been either followed to the Railway Station without our realizing it or our behavior had been predicted.
“Thanks for coming,” I said to Joan, “and who are you?” I followed, rapping the youngster on his right shoulder .
“Corporal Sam Hill, Sir,” he answered. “I got the week off for leave but nowhere to go. Sergeant said I might come with you guys, if that’s okay.”
He looked to be a teenager to me, but most Marines do, as I get older.
“A guy just got shot back at the museum, and we’re being hunted by people we don’t know. Are you sure you want a piece of this?” I retorted. I didn’t mention that I’d done the shooting.
“Yes, sir,” the boy-child replied, filled with enthusiasm.
“Why’d you come?” I asked Joan, noting that her medium cut brown hair was perfectly combed. It seemed to float around her head. When she turned to face me, it bounced on its own a few times. I felt a warm glow. She’d carefully prepared to see me again.
“I wasn’t doing anything else,” she said, then smiled for the first time since I’d encountered her. I had a million questions I wanted to ask her but none of them had anything to do with our current situation.
“Thank you,” I repeated, getting control of myself, enough to find out what we needed to know. “How did your husband get involved in a CIA operation?” I asked her, directly.
“He’s not my husband, and I don’t know, but I know he did. What was it all about?” she asked me, in return.
I noted that the nails of her left hand, draped over the side of the seat, were manicured, and painted to a high gloss. I could not tell the color, as blue was the only color I really saw well at all. Her eyes were intensely blue, with thick brows over them. I could see those. She had a stunning presence.
“What happened to Smith, down in Mombasa?” I countered, ignoring her question.
“It didn’t’ start in Mombasa,” she replied. “It ended there, down in that prison outside of town.”
“Shimo la Tiwa?” I asked? I knew the prisons of Kenya. Not hellholes like the prison typified in the movie Midnight Express, put out in the seventies, but dirty bad places to try to survive in, especially for a Caucasian.
“G.K,” she said, shaking her head, “I think it was called, from what I heard.”
G.K. were the two letters mounted above the iron grate entrance to Shimo prison. I’d never found out what they stood for, but I said nothing to Joan. We had a location to work back from. It was also instructive that Smith had been in prison, not in jail. It spoke of an unlikely permanence.
“Where did it start?” I asked her.
“What?” Joan replied, not focused on the data I was trying to get from her.
“Smith. You said all of it started somewhere. Where?” I asked, patiently.
“Oh,” she answered, taking her time. I wondered if it was because of perplexity or evasion. “At the Embassy. Smith came to see Paul at the Embassy.
Neither of them were happy about the meeting, but I don’t know what they talked about.”
“Was your Communications Director present for the meeting?” I inquired, wanting to know if the local CIA ‘cowboy’ stationed at the Embassy was involved.
“That guy?” she came back. “Tyrell? No, why would he be there?”
I couldn’t believe that the DCM of a major embassy could remain unaware of the facility’s only CIA operative, however ceremonial his role was, but I let it pass. I would deal with Tyrell later.
“We’re going down there, to Mombasa,” I told her, not really understanding why I was giving her any information whatsoever. I just felt that I had to trust somebody and, for some reason I could not fathom, I found the DCM to be imminently trustable.
“The train. You’re taking the train tonight, aren’t you?” she correctly assumed. “You’re going after Rafiq, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer. Rafiq Salim was the name of our Lebanese target from the mission. I tried to think of why Joan would think we would pursue him down in Mombasa. The Agency had informed me that he lived in Nairobi where he ran a jewelry business. Without prompting, she gave me the answer.
“He lives down there. His family runs one of the ferries.”
I almost groaned aloud. Whatever we were involved in just kept getting more and more complex. I couldn’t seem to find any truth in anything.
“What do you want me to do, sir?” the corporal asked.
“Well for one, Sam Hill, I want you to stop calling me sir. My name is Jack.” I didn’t make the obligatory joke about ‘Sam Hell’ as I presumed he had been living with that all of his life. “Then, when we’re done here, I want you to drive this vehicle down to Mombasa. You have a cell phone?” The boy handed me a white card, like the generic Marine Corps card Staff Sergeant Stevens had given me. There was a Kenyan number on it in pencil. A ton of numbers really, but they seemed to work.
I noted that he was attired in a worn canvas outfit, with lots of pockets. He looked like an assistant to a tour director for one of the tourist ‘safari’ adventures, or maybe one of the redemption-seeking workers for an aid agency. In Kenya to seek redemption from living a life of spoiled ease and meaninglessness. Joan’s information, if it was valid, changed everything. Mombasa was revealing itself as the key to our mystery, or at least the place where the key might be found.
“When you get down there, and you should arrive hours before us, go to the Inter-Continental and hang out. I’ll call you. We need a car down there, and it might as well be this one.” I could not rent a car for cash in Kenya. Renting another car, no matter what the bribe, would take a host of paper and plastic backup I was not willing to give out. I no longer believed that the Agency was after us. But somebody with assets and motivation was. I was not going to give them anymore than I absolutely had to.
“The embassy is locked down,” Joan said.
“How’d you get out?” I asked, but then didn’t wait for an answer, already knowing that Stevens was at work. The Ambassador would be howling mad when he discovered his ex-wife, his DCM, was not there. “When you going back?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll catch a Matata home. I don’t understand any of this and I need to think, and maybe drink half a bottle of Grey Goose while I do it. Can we go somewhere and talk? Do you have time? Is there some place?”
I was surprised by her request. I was also surprised, however, that she had gotten out from under an embassy lockdown. The woman was starting to amaze me even more than Burt. We had several hours to kill before getting aboard the train, and we needed to be someplace where we could be off the streets. The bottle of Grey Goose sounded wonderful, but it was not to be.
“The Java House, on Argwings, just off Kenyatta, you know it?” I said to the corporal.
“Kinda,” he answered, biting the sir off before it came out of his mouth. He made me feel old and slow, totally unlike what I got from Joan.
“Make it so,” I said, emulating Jon Luke Piccard from Star Trek.
“Engage,” he laughed back, diving out of the traffic, across two medians and reversing our course of travel. I noted that another vehicle tried the same maneuver but only managed to create a massive traffic tie-up behind us. Whoever they were, they were persistent and good. Just not as good as a crazy teen-aged Marine driving a Pajero in downtown Nairobi.
“What changed?” I said to Joan, as the Pajero rocked back and forth, avoiding all manner of obstacles I tried not to pay attention to, only too happy to be taking the train instead of riding with Sam.
“What changed about what?” she retorted, holding fast to the sissy bar mounted above her window.
Communicating with the woman was maddening.
“We’re going to Mombasa,” Burt said, unaccountably.