The camp slowly and painfully hove into view and agonisingly coalesced into reality. Only the physical pain of his injuries overcame the mental anguish of seeing so many cruelly and clearly wantonly murdered people he had come to regard as friends and companions. That the camp had been ransacked was evident, but that it had not been completely stripped was a hugely important discovery. Martin needed and found water and then food. Two-day-old bread was still bread. He hardly dared to stop moving as the agony increased at every halt. Shuffling, staggering, Martin concluded very quickly that there was no help to be had and without it he would undoubtedly succumb. The generator was still running and although the satellite dish on the communications truck had been destroyed, the box unit looked not too badly shot up. Making the climb up into the truck back body even with the stair attached was almost beyond Martin’s physical capability and weeping with pain and totally exhausted he collapsed onto the truck bed floor, his live body joining Pete Edgecome’s dead corpse.
A moment of reflection as the pain temporarily subsided and the rationalisation that should he succumb now he would join Pete in death Martin felt vindicated in his efforts as on activating the ON switch the little green light came on. The batteries were not dead, the radios were still operative.
Unaware of time or the possibility that no one was listening or that the radio was even on a usable communications frequency Martin forced himself to reach out to the microphone.
“Occi.” He struggled with the words. “Occidental base, come in.”
There was no response.
Martin tried again, tears forming at the effort, his voice croaky. Again, then again the words to the point he was unable to speak them. Even in his anguish the thought came, how was it that my throat is so dry and yet I can cry?
A hand closed over his. Martin was at once shocked and too tired to take in how it had happened. The hand gently prised the microphone from his fingers and then swiftly and expertly ran over his body, producing cries of pain as cuts and bruises were revealed.
The voice was low and black in tone. “Gunshot wound, entry and exit right calf. Seems to have missed the bone and major artery but there is significant blood loss. Broken left arm, ribs and lower leg, possible skull fracture and extensive bruising.”
Another voice, somehow familiar but Martin could not place it. “Let’s get him somewhere more comfortable, then we’ll do a double check in case there are other survivors we haven’t found.”
Martin felt hands lift him and then the world went black again.
It had been another virtually pointless day. The only local tribal people anywhere near the survey line were a small family group of seven, three adults and four children. Even these were not a threat or close enough to be in any danger but doing his duty Vere had his guys track them. It was all done in the most un provocative manner, his people well clear of the locals, one group ahead and one behind, both in contact by radio. Even that radio contact was conducted covertly, earphones only so to not risk alerting and upsetting the local family. Richard Vere was the only one on his team listening to multiple frequencies. The signal was poor, broken at best but still there. Richard came up short at the words ‘not our people’ followed swiftly by a garbled piece of static in which the only discernable word was ‘shooting’. It could have been misheard, the word could have been shoot or something like it. Richard was unsure enough to wait, and the unmistakable thump of the evening seismic shoot maybe six miles distant and just minutes later convinced him he had misheard. Even so just the hint of residual disquiet resided in his mind.
“All delta call signs disconnect.” He announced on the radio net. “Rendezvous at line 45 comma 03 dash 21point 104. Confirm.”
True to their professionalism the call signs confirmed in set sequence with zero delay. “Delta two, (and three through seven in sequence) confirm 45 point 104.”
“Delta one this is four, confirm we are east of 45.”
Delta four this is one, negative, you should be west of 45. Assume heading 160 magnetic.”
“Delta one this is three. It will be dark in twenty minutes.”
“All delta’s this is one. Copy that, makes sense to camp now. Rendezvous first thing in the morning.”
The sun was up for well over two hours before all Vere’s men made it to the rendezvous and he explained his misgivings. Since last night the radio had been silent. His calls unanswered. With range and foliage attenuation it was was completely comprehensible that the seismic team had not heard his portable. That he had heard nothing from them since either by radio or satellite link was a huge concern. The team ate then started up the line. Some mile and a half short of the geophone mat and working up the line toward the mat, that concern grew as they approached it. Vehicles and people should have been seen well before they came across the mat, but unusually no team was working as they advanced onto the geophone tail.
A mile up the line Vere came across the first body and immediately the team went tactical. The body was of one of the labourers and it was clear that he’d crawled some way before succumbing to his wounds. Three bullet holes in his back and the associated exit wounds on his front spoke of high velocity rounds. Whoever had done this had much more than a pistol.
Working in two bricks, one either side of the Geophone mat and in a classic cover and move formation Vere led his team carefully up the line. Another mile and another four bodies all shot dead, with evidence of the shooters in the form of cartridges on the ground. Vere inspected each body and the cartridges. They were from Kalashnikov assault rifles and explained the severity of the wounds the bullets had inflicted.
What had happened was obvious. Some insurgent group had stumbled on the seismic team and rather than just withdraw, had shot their way through. What Vere was struggling to understand was why? It was unheard of for dissidents to inhabit jungle, and never before this far from civilisation. It did not make sense. These types of people had an axe to grind with civilisation, not the jungle. They were not poachers. There was nothing significant to poach here. So the first question was what were they doing here, the second being who were they?
An answer of sorts came from delta six, just behind him.
Four sets of eyes and guns swung to meet the threat.
No bullets flew for the contact, realizing he was seen immediately raised his hands.
“Mister Vere.” The man said, only just loud enough to be heard. “It is me. Jacob.”
“It is Jacob.” Ngomo Wapete, Delta six confirmed.
“Come on out.” Vere said. “With your hands up and alone.”
“There is only me Mister Vere.” Jacob affirmed. “The bad men have killed everyone but me.”
Jacob very carefully and cautiously exited the foliage.
“I was frightened they had come back Mister Vere, and then I saw you.” He explained.
“Come back?” Vere questioned.
“I saw them going this morning.” Jacob told the Delta team. “They killed us all then took our white people.”
“Took them?” Vere asked incredulously.
“It was a long way away.” Jacob said. “But I saw no black people in the line. They took them to the jungle.”
“Who were they?” Vere asked.
“Bad people.” Jacob replied. “Very bad people.”
“And they’re gone now?”
“I saw them go.”
“A lot, maybe forty.”
“Ye gods.” Vere said to himself, then to his men. “Best we get up there and see what’s left.”
Approaching the camp, the measure of Jacob’s assertion was clear. Virtually every body was of a black labourer. Only four whites were discovered having been killed. The camp had been ransacked but not completely denuded and miracle of miracles there were survivors.
They found Martin in the radio truck and two more of the labourers who had managed to hide effectively but who came out on hearing friendly voices. Not as injured as Martin they were nevertheless traumatised and dehydrated.
“Our priorities.” Vere announced to his men, “Are three fold. First to look after the survivors, second to collect, identify and bury our dead.” He paused to let the association sink in. “And third to find and destroy the bastards who did this.”
It seemed callous, but Richard set the labourers to work, the two who had hidden to sort out the camp, keep an eye on Martin and get some food cooking. Jacob was sent with four of his delta team and the truck to pick up the dead and equipped with his satellite phone he despatched the two best trackers of his team to find and track the insurgents. He set himself the job of first getting the radio to work, letting the world know and getting some help brought in.
Sir John leaned forward to press the intercom button. “Verity.”
Verity, Sir John’s secretary spoke. “Sir John, I’m sorry to trouble you but I have a call patched through from Africa. I think you should take it.”
Sir John considered it for a moment. Verity was rarely wrong. “What’s it about?” He asked.
“Trouble at one of our sites. It’s a mister Vere. Shall I put him through.”
“Don’t recall any Vere’s, but all right, I’ll speak to the chap.”
The telephone buzzed, a noise not unlike that of the intercom, just more insistent. Sir John picked up the receiver. “Mr Vere?”
The voice sounded distant. “Hello. You’re the third person I’ve spoken to. I am told that at last you might be someone who is going to listen.”
“Probably.” Sir John replied. “Rather depends what you are going to say.”
“You have dead people here and I make it seventeen hostages taken into the jungle.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“There are dead people. Your people. There are hostages. Again, your people.”
“Is this a ransom demand?” Sir John demanded angrily.
“No.” Vere answered. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get one some day soon. This is letting you know that your survey site has been attacked. I make it twenty-eight dead and eleven survivors here, four of whom are in a bad way. The other seventeen, all your workers, all westerners have been kidnapped.”
“How do you know this?”
“Where is here?”
“Middle of the jungle. I could give you latitude and longitude. The paperwork I found your telephone number on says Occidental Prospect 40112.”
“Hell.” Sir John expleted. He was told just that morning of the failure to communicate from 40112 last night or the night before. Here was a possible reason. “Who are you Mr Vere?”
“Hired help. I have a contract with Forward Oil to act as a sort of liaison officer with the local tribes. Keep them safe from seismic explosions.”
“I need something more explicit.”
“I have Chris Hill here. He’s one of yours.”
Sir John vaguely recalled the name. “Put him on.”
In the few seconds before the new voice came on Sir John buzzed Verity and demanded a personnel list of everyone on prospect 40112.
“Hello.” A different voice, on the line and clearly stressed. “Who am I talking to?”
“Sir John Gresley.”
“Wow. Sir John.”
“We were attacked. I don’t know who they were but there were lots of them and bullets everywhere. Neil Parsons and I got away but Dave Isaacs is riddled,he was the administrator here so you must have heard of him. They’ve killed Trevor Gibbon, Derek Brown, Phil Jones, Pete Edgecomeand more than twenty of our local workers. They shot Martin Baker as well and he’s in a bad way but at least he’s still alive.”
Verity McBride had silently entered Sir John’s office and placed a printed list in front of him. The names tallied, one name jumping out at him. Just a week ago Jason Tully had sent his girl out to this prospect. Sir John brought her to mind. “What about the others?” He asked.
“Gone Sir John. Taken.”
“What do you need? Sir John asked. “What ever it is you’ll get it.”
“Medical help as soon as is possible.” Chris Hill said. “Vere’s men are digging graves but we could do with more people to help get things back in order. Then find the bastards who did this and get our people back.”
Sir Hugh Neville KCMG, Her Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Sub Sahara Western Africa (less Nigeria and the Ivory Coast) was not best pleased. The telephone call he had just made was completely unsatisfactory. That he had been made aware the previous evening of British subjects being killed and kidnapped was bad enough. That when in receipt of more detail and an impassioned request for intervention he demanded swift action of the government it was met with a less than enthusiastic response infuriated him.
True, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland did not have major commercial ties with that part of Africa nor did it so much as maintain a legation there but that did not excuse the lethargy.
In controlled apoplexy, it did not well engender a diplomat to actually raise his voice, Sir Hugh requested in the most direct manner that prompt action be taken before his countrymen be lost to the world. If no military solution could be afforded in the immediate future, at least track and ascertain the whereabouts and intentions of this rogue gang of kidnappers. Lacking a positive response, in a fit of pique and quite beyond his remit Sir Hugh had threatened military intervention on the part of the United Kingdom. It did not go down well.
David Bobote, le Ministère de l'Intérieur was less happy than the British Diplomat he had just finished talking to. He however was in closer contact with, and had considerably more influence over his military compatriots. The summoning of the country’s military head occasioned a swift response. The offices of Marechal d’Armee Milton Obeko were after all situated just over the road from Bobote’s own ministry.
“It is insufferable.” Bobote ranted. “That our capabilities should be called into question. It is unacceptable that we do nothing.”
“But Ministère.” Came the response. “There are two things. The first is that we do not know for sure who these people are, what they want or where they have gone. The second is that we do not have the means to get into the jungle or to do anything meaningful quickly. We could perhaps get a patrol in to track them but that will take a week. To insert the people and logistics that will resolve this situation is not an easy thing. Look at the Boko Harem girls in Nigeria, it is much the same situation for us. These traitors have come and gone and we do not know where. The jungle is more dense in our country but we have national parks and there are forest rangers who may see these pigs. It cannot be easy to hide with.” He extracted a slip of paper from a pocket and glanced at it. “With seventeen hostages. We should be patient. Word will come.”
Bobote breathed deep. “Get your patrol in. Do it as fast as you can and let me know it is done, then I will telephone the English and throw this under his nose.”
Day five, interminable days of mental and physical exhaustion brought the column of into a prepared camp. Of a sudden the clawing dripping jungle opened without warning into a clearing that wasn’t. The trees remained but the underbrush was gone, replaced by stacked boxes, crates, sacks and what looked like permanent wooden huts. Overhead the canopy remained augmented with canvas and net screens looped between the trunks. The aircraft they had heard droning back and forth across the sky the previous day would never see this encampment and any residual hope of discovery and rescue was instantly dashed.
For the first time in five days all the hostages were in the same place, all clustered within a decrepit wattle-fenced enclosure and thankfully under a large tarpaulin that kept the rain off. Of the fifteen survivors slumped together on the damp floor none was without mental or physical injury, most exhausted, fearful and cowed. As they each made a place to lay down after a virtually inedible meal that was nevertheless consumed ravenously, five of the incarcerated westerners were in a seriously bad way.
Brian Osborne had never been fit, not really fit and with his weak chest and the exertion of the jungle journey he had acquired a respiratory tract infection, his coughing getting worse by the hour. It was almost as if the keeping moving had kept him going for once prostrate his lungs filled and the deep heavy coughing as he tried to breath became constant.
Rob Greggson was showing the first signs of disease after brutal attacks on his body from mosquito bites. In his haste to reach Africa he had not taken the full course of anti malarial and sleeping sickness drugs normally prescribed and was paying the penalty.
Rebecca Jones also had an infection. An infection in an intimate place and caused by her multiple rapes. She was burning up from inside and like Rob no one could do a thing about it.
Sean Montgomery’s leg was swollen and the wound full of pus. The team had no doctor and accordingly Ryan took it upon himself to lance the pus pocket. Joanne protested. “You’re not a bloody doctor.” She hissed at him. “You are just as likely to make it worse.”
Ryan ignored her and did it anyway. A pocket knife cleansed over a candle flame probably wasn’t the best tool but it was the only one available. At least there was a plentiful supply of water to wash the wound. The stench was overpowering but it eased Shaun’s plight. It didn’t help that Shaun was also sporting a serious fever from the injury but at least a makeshift bandage to keep the flies off of it would help.
It lay with the less damaged ten to nurse as best they could the five. As the next morning dawned the hostages prepared themselves for another wearying day of travel only to be faced at the enclosure entrance with the imposing bulk of the insurgent leader known as K’gozi.
“Two days.” The K’gozi told them. “You will recover and then we will go on. There is food here now and tonight three will come to me and fetch food from the fire. There will be no fire here.” He looked pointedly at the candle, burned almost to a nub. “And no smoke in the day.” He did not wait for confirmation and the implicit threat went unspoken.
Left in the enclosure with two tinfoil plates containing unleavened bread, three breadfruit like husks and what looked like half a chicken Tom assumed that as senior man he had authority to allocate the food portions and when questioned, voiced it.
“You want the chicken all to you Ryan?” He asked as Ryan Lithgow leaned in to pull off the thigh.
“Just going to shred it, if that’s all right with you managers.” Ryan returned, a dig at his earlier rejection from Tom’s table.
Tom grunted, setting the bread aside. “Fifteen equal piles. I’ll do the chicken and bread. I saw you had a knife, you want to use it on the fruit?”
“After Shaun’s leg?” Ryan replied. “I’d want to clean it on the candle again.”
“I don’t care if you piss on it.” Tom told him. “Just don’t bloody well get someone else shot because you made a flame in daylight.”
With everyone around the two trays, Brian included despite his wheezing, Tom broached the subject of capability, hegemony and leadership. That Brian, Rob, Sean, and Rebecca were decidedly under par was obvious. That Pete Swanson was in pain and struggling was also clear, his massive bruising taxing his ability to endure, the rest a huge fillip. But to his credit Pete kept going and did not complain.
Of the ten nominally in better condition, Tom addressed Joanne first.
“I’m all right.” Joanne told him as she nibbled the finger of unleavened bread apportioned to her. Tom had reservations but could not gainsay her words. After all he too was hanging on by a thread. Joanne looked gaunt and without exception all of them looked dirty and haggard. Everyone was in dirty clothes and had not had a meaningful wash for six days and despite the debilitating fatigue no one had slept properly.
Tom went round the gathering as they dipped into their own little piles of food. One by one he asked the same question. “How are you coping?” He got OK’s from both Mikes, Mark Nuttal, Alan Roberts, George Adams and even as a blatant lie from Rob Greggson. Adam Tomes said he was coping but his vacant look said otherwise where Alan Roberts and Ryan Lithgow both had vengeance in their eyes.
“All right,” Tom opened. “As an un appointed leader.”
He got no further. Rob Greggson, despite his illness disputed the assumption. “You have never been in a stress situation like this.” He told Tom. “I understand how these are your people and you feel responsible but you are not necessarily the leader this group needs. I have been there and can tell you it’s no easy task. What we should do is vote on who should be in charge and I am going to throw my hat into the ring.”
“Commendable.” Tom responded. “But who of us knows any better? Why would anyone here trust you over me?”
“I didn’t say it was between you and me.” Rob returned. He was ex military and saw himself as best qualified to be in charge of this misfit band. “I will tell you I have seen combat. Who else here has? You want an open field let’s all of us know some more about each of us. Maybe then we can say who is best to lead.”
“As of now, you’re not.” George Adams put in. “You’re a bloody mess and Tom isn’t. He’s not done too bad so let’s leave it be for now. It’s not like there’s a spokesman or leader asked for.”
The hiatus was temporary. “We should take it in turns to do things.” Mike Wienhardt said. “Tom can divvy up the places, but whoever gets the grub tonight does not do it tomorrow.”
It shared responsibility, was inclusive and did not show weakness to their captors. It made sense, and everyone agreed so they worked it that way. The day was interminable, the heat stifling. It may well have been better to keep moving. At least then there had been no time to brood on their situation. Every move brought the attention of the youth appointed to guard them during the day. This was the one who had shot Paul Philpot in cold blood. He too was hot and irritated at his charges restlessness, making great show of his gun to control perceived disorder. It did not go down well then or bode well for the future. No one likes a kid brandishing a gun in your face, and particularly not a kid you have seen use it to kill.
The sun finally dropped from the sky with its usual speed and with the onset of darkness the guard changed and a central fire was lit in order to prepare food. Tom had already decided who would go for it once it was ready. The food the three brought back was just edible and barely sufficient, the frankfurter sausages and beef patties had been more appetising and more fulfilling than twenty crisped slices of some indiscernible kind of meat that Ryan verbally suspected was monkey and half a dozen nearly raw potatoes. They ate with their fingers and clustered around a tinfoil dish under a clearing sky and partial starlight augmented by a single oil wick lamp. It was entirely probable that not seeing what you’re eating made the meal less unpalatable.
Overnight Brian’s coughing became worse and even sitting him up didn’t seem to help. Laying him back down again conditioned another deterioration. Unable by means of their confinement to get away from the almost constant hacking, dawn found people more tired than they had been at dusk.
The two days blended into three. Brian was so bad there was no way he could be moved and contrary to expectations the K’gozi acceded to Tom’s request for delaying his departure in the hope of an improvement. And yet Brian hung on and on before the fever finally dragged him down. With his almost incessant cough sleep was almost an impossibility and it was almost a relief when on the third night the cough became less pronounced and then ceased. Despondent and overtired people too fatigued to even notice could at last slide off into deep sleep. Dawn broke for a third time and once more the jungle came alive, waking the tired and dispirited prisoners to shake awake a comatose Mike Davies slumped against Brian’s makeshift cot and a cold dead body.
On the Move Again
“Out.” M’longwe, the guard for the day ordered on entering the wattle enclosure to find all the westerners awake and backed off from the corpse. “All out.” He gestured with his gun to back up the demand.
With all the hostages out of the wattle sided hut and sat on relatively open ground K’gozi, the leader of the raiding group came to M’longwe to question what was happening. He’d been amongst the hostages repeatedly over the last two days, reluctantly acceding to a delay because of Brian’s condition. Now there were no further grounds for not continuing his intended trek.
Neither Rebecca, Sean nor Pete Swanson were really in a condition to be moving but at least they weren’t coughing and breathless. All three had fevers but could walk. With all the personal rations that had originally been gathered by Brian now expended no one would be carrying rations in excess of the supplies they were allocated and had to carry for the greater group. Tom had started to complain that the hostages’ packs were bigger than the fighters and was quickly corrected. The fighters had weapons and ammunition as well as food packs.
Without input from the K’gozi Tom reorganised the three groups and put one of his people in charge of each with the concept of having one of the more seriously sick to look after per group. He took Rob Greggson, Sean Montgomery, Adam Tomes and Mark Nuttal. Mike Davies took Rebecca Jones, George Adams and Alan Roberts, leaving Harold Tarn in charge of Pete Swanson, Ryan Lithgow, Joanne Fletcher and Mike Wienhardt. Tom had considered placing the two women together but changed his mind, thinking they would be better protected if flanked by uninjured men.
A day’s march proved the soundness of that decision. They had most likely travelled less than ten miles but Rob and Rebecca had to be force carried for the last hour and Pete Swanson barely made it by himself. The surprise was Sean, who despite his festering leg had kept up. It was true that in each day of the three day let up Ryan had lanced and drained the pus pocket then cleaned it as best he could and re-dressed it but the double wound was by no means really clean or healing.
Two more days of crashing through jungle and Rob was sweating out his fever. Even Pete Swanson was improving. Unfortunately Rebecca was getting worse and seemingly out of nowhere Sean collapsed into convulsions. Like everyone he had been sweating in the heat, but in his case more so. If there had been any betting going on, the money would have been on Rebecca not making it. Now the cards had been re-dealt. The column came to an abrupt halt, bunching up as each section walked into the one ahead such that everyone was within a dozen paces of Sean’s convulsing form. That he was seriously ill was evident, his face and hands pale, his body shivering as he writhed. That no one was in a position to help was also clear, the raiders in an irrational fear of disease and the prisoners because of the lack of medical knowledge and supplies. Rebecca moved to Sean’s side and knelt down. Taking his hand seemed to calm his shaking body. She took out a rag and with the little water she had remaining dampened the rag and mopped his fevered brow.
“We will leave them.” The K’gozi announced, the distaste evident in voice and face. “M’longwe will stay. If they recover he will bring them to us, if they don’t he will come without them.”
All who heard the pronouncement knew it was a death sentence for Shaun and Rebecca but none were in a position to do anything about it. Mark Nuttal mistook the nature of the previous days relationship and complained vociferously that it was unfair. “You held back for Brian.” He argued loudly. “We should hold here and help Shaun.”
The K’gozi’s face betrayed his mood. He took instant umbrage at the open questioning of his authority, pulled his pistol, cocked it and and shot Mark on the spot, a single bullet to the chest throwing him backwards to scrabble desperately and helplessly for breath, his eyes and mouth wide in panic and fear, his attempts at breath short and his hands red as they clenched in agony over his shattered ribs, a pink froth forming on his mouth as he drowned in his own blood.
Shocked and appalled at the sight once again of death at such proximity and immediacy both Adam and George vomited a dry bile. Their stomach’s had nothing more to offer. Without exception the other captives stood petrified in horror, numbed, cowed and intimidated.
“Does anyone else want to argue?” The K’gozi asked pointedly.
None of the westerners could summon the courage to confront a guaranteed suicide, each dejectedly picking up his or her pack and less another three of their number, at gun point and under watchful eyes rejoined the column. Biting back the tears that her emotions threatened Joanne still noted as she took her place in line that just like he had done when Pierre was shot Ryan had picked up Mark’s pack as well as his own.
Night fell with the band still moving. The moon rose full and bright in a clearing sky to illuminate the jungle floor sufficiently for the K’gozi’s force to keep a close watch on their charges and just enough for the ready cleared path to be followed. Hours passed, slow and hazardous hours as the creatures of the night emerged, their calls enough to further terrify already frightened people. At last a halt was announced, just as the small column entered into another prepared encampment.