“They’re doing what?” Vere asked. Still attempting to make sense of the previous morning’s fire fight, he had heard correctly but had difficulty believing what had just been said.
He had led his small team out to help Lieutenant Mugabe then as the shooting started halted, thinking he did not want to walk into the middle of a battle without better comprehension of where the bullets were heading. In the pause for thinking, David Beko as Delta four radioed to say that only four guards were left with the hostages. On the realization that the distraction was exactly the opportunity to free the hostages Vere found himself caught in a Marshal Grouchy situation. Halfway from either action, without a plan and temporarily undecided as to what the priority should be, just like Grouchy at Waterloo he ended up achieving nothing.
From his vantage point Beko had seen the remaining guards taking cover against non-existent fire and decided to give them a reason for it. A few well-aimed rounds had one down and the other three convinced their compatriots were losing the battle. The effect was counter productive in that instead of just running, the guards took to emptying their magazines into the hostages tent before more rounds from Beko sent them scuttling for the undergrowth.
“They are definitely moving out boss.” Beko reiterated over the radio. “You should be able to see the smoke where they are burning their camp. I can smell the burning flesh from here.”
Vere clicked his PTT. “Yes, delta four. I got that, but you said they are moving South.”
“South and west. Back the way they came.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Vere returned. “Logic says they should retreat further into their territory.”
“Logic isn’t in play here Richard. They are definitely heading South and West.”
“Copy.” Vere answered, his mind racing. What could be the thinking behind this odd strategy? He’d not heard of any ransom demands so it couldn’t be a matter of retaining proximity to a repatriation source. Maybe it was a matter of supplies. Perhaps the chain beyond here was disrupted and the only supply dump was in the last location. Could it be a s simple as doing the complete opposite to expectation?
“OK.” Vere spoke on the radio. “No point in following. Scout around and see if they’ve left anything worthwhile. We’ll join you there. Say forty minutes.”
Beko wasn’t the only one hanging around the burned out insurgent camp. Lieutenant Mugabe had put out piquets and they had missed out on the fighting. They now had rendezvoused after the insurgents had departed and lacking leadership swelled Vere’s ranks to double the former number.
“Let us work and learn from each other.” David Beko had suggested. “We are brothers in this fight. Let us stand shoulder to shoulder, one with one.”
Vere was in a split mind as to the effectiveness of such an arrangement but acceded, as politically it would work for the best. The government troops seemed surprised that a white officer so much as listened to let alone took the advice of his black subordinate. Aside and over a chicken stew corporal Khalifa DeSalis questioned David Beko as to Vere’s competency.
“Number one.” Beko responded. “Not just he brought us with him on this job but I’ve worked with him for over a dozen years in places across the world.”
“You said with, not for.”
“That’s the way it is with us. Richard is the boss because he gets the work but we are a team. We rely on each other and he’s sound. I wouldn’t want to be in a fight without him there.”
“But you didn’t help us in the fight.”
Beko sat back. “And you didn’t help either. We knew nothing of the Major’s plan and Richard was too late to intervene. So what were you told?”
“We did not know detail. Major Okimbo told us that we should not know anything we could tell to the terrorists if we were caught.”
Beko laughed. “He should not have worried. With us it would be the other way round.”
“The other way?”
“Those boys would never take us. If we wanted it we would take them.”
“And you did not.”
“To take the piquets would have let them know we were here. Better to do our own reconnoitre, then with our plan to take them all.”
Tracking back was at the same time easier and harder. Easier because the side trails were already cut and only partially overgrown, harder because the insurgents were a lot more wary. They permanently had scouts out wide and were laying traps on every trail they discovered. Being in advance of them had an unacceptable risk of discovery so slowly and methodically Vere’s team trailed the insurgents back to the first base.
The positive side was in the coalition of the two sets. Each had something to learn from the other group. Vere’s men learned that the government troops were not by any means unprofessional and knew the ways of the jungle. The government troops learned that foreigners were not all bad. They too were professional and not judgmental. That white and black could and did work together. A bond of trust and comradeship grew in just those four days.
“There is a chance.” Richard told them. “Now we are twelve and they just thirty that if we catch them at just the right time but only at that perfect time, maybe we can pull this off. There can be no repetition of last time. We are still heavily outnumbered so they can have no idea we are here. At the first sign they know of our presence all bets are off.”
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. This was not the first time he’d heard from Sir John Gresley and nor was it the first time he’d spoken to David Bobote, le Ministère de l'Intérieur.
Following the normal official introductions. Hugh opened, “Minister. I am not aware of the plans and intentions of your military. I am however very aware that the actions of the armed forces of your government are the direct cause of the deaths of seven of her Majesty’s subjects.”
“Ambassador.”Ministère Bobote returned, the epithet erroneous. “I am not fully appraised as to any military action that has occurred and object to such accusations. I remind you of our previous conversation and advise that a tracking party was swiftly assembled. A further three companies of troops are even now preparing to deploy to the supply location, which I am advised is close to the terrorist encampment.”
“For god’s sake.” Hugh Neville burst out. “I demand that you do nothing further to endanger these hostages. There are only four of them left. If just one more is injured due to the ineptitude of your ground forces the most severe repercussions will arrive directly on your doorstep.”
“May I remind you that it is a request and requirement, clearly stated in each British Passport of Her Majesty’s government that all our citizens be afforded free passage and the protection of the state when in your country. Should you fail to provide such reasonable assurances, and so far you have demonstrated this to be the case, there will be sanctions. Not just British sanctions. We will appeal to the United Nations and they will almost assuredly agree with our stance.”
“That is a heavy threat Ambassador.”
“And not one lightly given.” Sir Hugh returned. “What ever it takes, these people must be saved.”
David Bobote, le Ministère de l'Intérieur put down the telephone and immediately picked up a second one. “Give me Marechal Obeko.” He told the operator.
Back to base.
Early on the fourth day the group returned into the first camp they had stopped in. Just like in the clearing en route no trace that Brian had died here existed in what now seemed an over large wattle walled hutment. The last time this four had been in the hut there had been fifteen hostages. It had seemed tight then, now it was anything but and the four, instead of spreading out, huddled together into one end, not for warmth for even at night the jungle was never cold, but as they had for the past four nights in a misplaced sense of security.
With fewer people to accommodate, both his followers and their hostages, the next morning the K’gozi rationalized and centralized his position.
Post nominal ablutions and another excuse for a breakfast the four were moved as always at gun point to a real hut, one of half a dozen or so with real walls albeit they were still of wood panel and substantially rotted. The original roof too was only partially there and had been tarpaulined over and camouflaged. Better still, thrown in a corner were the remains of eight beds, the steel frames rusty but viable, the springs long gone. Adam postulated that with the addition of some planking something could be done to make four viable beds out of the eight. It would not actually be comfortable but at least it would get them off the hard concrete floor and out of direct contact with the ever-present biting insects.
That project at least gave them something to do, a purpose to the day and at the end of it, they had found something more. A harmony, a togetherness that wasn’t clear before. Up to this point each of them had cared about the others but had actually been caught up with their own individual survival. Now the realisation that only by working together for a common cause and standing up for each other could they actually have a chance of coming through this, however long it lasted.
The K’gozi appeared in the hut doorway, an open door but at least one that could after a fashion and in theory be shut. He faced a tidy room, a room that had been swept by the makeshift broom leaning in the corner. A room with four bedframes each with wooden slats and tarpaulin covers and above each bed hung a backpack.
After the argument they had heard raging earlier that morning, even two huts away the voice of the K’gozi could be heard loud in anger, his presence now did not bode well.
“I have heard that you are making a home.” He said, his manner composed and at odds with the sounds of only an hour previously. “There are many things of late that I do not like. This is one. It disturbs my people.”
Reluctant to answer back, Joanne plucked up the courage to do just that. “Why?” She asked.
“It doesn’t matter why. There will be no more home making. My people sleep on the floor. So will you.”
Joanne swallowed. The last time anyone had questioned the K’gozi they had ended up dead very quickly. It was a risk but in the changed circumstances maybe worth it. “The floor is not jungle.” She said. “It’s concrete. We cannot sleep on concrete. These are not comfortable beds. Surely a wooden bed is not too much to ask.”
The K’gozi looked at her long and hard before replying. “This is not a long stop. The foreigners have been slow but I hear now the grizzly will pay. It is a strange name. A grizzly is a bear, is that not so? I do not know the manner of bears for we do not have them in Africa but this one knows too much. Do you know of bears?”
“No.” Joanne replied. “I have seen one in the zoo and I am told they are cunning and strong.”
“There should be no more cunning.” The K’gozi said. “Or this will be a shorter stay for you than you think.” Then turning quickly on his heel before further questions could be raised, he left.
It wasn’t much of a climb down, but that nothing more was said or done confirmed the situation. Whatever the rationale, the remaining four white hostages had bargaining power. Perhaps they could use it to not get shot when the next crisis came.
With the newfound confidence even if it were only perceived, Ryan and Adam were compelled to find out more than was obvious from the daily chores. In the darkest part of the night when young Zidane, the night guard was at his lowest ebb they silently moved a section of the back wall they had discovered as merely a loose cover panel and crept out.
“You’re mad.” Joanne told them when it was first suggested. “What if they find out?”
“Maybe we just get shot a week early.” Ryan responded. “If they don’t find out, maybe we don’t.”
A week of nightly expeditions and they could draw a comprehensive map of their immediate surroundings. The map did not exist as a physical map, more a verbalised description in all their minds although Adam had sketched it out in the dust for Alan and Joanne’s benefit before destroying that evidence. They were housed in the third eighteen by thirty foot hut in a line of four each with their axis parallel. At ninety degrees another two huts sat in front of the four, one originally an office and now housing the K’gozi, the other at a forty-yard gap a derelict kitchen diner and used by the onion boys as a briefing and command centre. Separated from the six a further two huts originally served as a washroom and a stores. Both were now overtaken by the jungle. The complex, although to describe it as such would be a fabrication, was completed by the wattle enclosure that the hostages had originally been housed in and set apart from the buildings. An enclosure that Ryan concluded had originally been intended for keeping livestock.
The whole experience put a further strain on Joanne. The nigh time fear of discovery and retribution did not allow her to sleep easily. The days spent effectively alone as the boys caught up on sleep.
Whatever their nocturnal mini expeditions all four had to be present at the dawn and dusk mealtimes and with this being the only time to communicate, to do other than reflect on her predicament even though she could see her prattling irritated the boys Joanne tended to speak out more than she had done previously.
Once again they were dealt a half filled bowl of some obscure meat in a mushy and unpalatable mixed vegetable or heavy fruit stew.
“D’you know the irony of this?” Ryan asked to anyone who would listen.
“No.” Alan reluctantly answered. It would have been pointless to ignore Ryan.
“This place, it’s an old survey base.” Ryan told him.
“How do you mean?” Joanne queried.
“We have a concrete floor and iron bedframes. There may have been some patching up but these huts were western built. You can see where the pipes and cables went. There’s a fuel tank over in the undergrowth and the remains of a cess-pit with real toilets, unfortunately none have seats on them.”
“How does that make a survey base?” Joanne asked. “It’s too permanent.”
“How things used to be.” Ryan answered. “They weren’t so mobile in the old days. Always had a permanent site right in the middle of a concession.”
“Who built this place then?” Joanne asked.
“My guess is SSC.” Adam put in.
“SSC? Who are they?”
“Defunct American Survey Company. Big in the sixties.”
“You mean this has all been done before?” Joanne queried.
“Sixty, maybe seventy years ago.” Adam said.
“Why don’t we know that?” Joanne questioned again.
“Government changed at least three times. Information’s just disappeared.”
“SSC haven’t got records?”
“They went bust. Data’s gone.”
“Someone must know something.”
“Oh yes. There’s bugger all here.”
“So why the hell were we doing this survey at all?”
“Concession. Forward get rights on a patch off-shore where we can be sure it’s good. Just have to prove this patch is useless.”
“But if we know it’s barren?”
“Needed to prove it. Crap results don’t do that.”
“We’re being watched.”
Ryan looked haggard and Adam wasn’t looking much better after another night creeping about. They would be in better condition after eating and a days sleep. The meal the four hostages were looking forward to was a combination of flat bread and potato fruit that had been baking on the open fire since long before dawn. That fire was now quenched and smoke free with the night watch piquets gathered around its embers. All too soon the day would heat them far more than the dead fire.
Joanne was tired but in a different manner. For her the fatigue was a result of a restless night on an uncomfortable bed and being newly awoken from a disturbed sleep. “They’re always watching us.” She said irritably. Ryan had made another obvious statement. He could irritate her every bit as she knew she irritated him.
“Someone else. Maybe the government again.”
“You’ve seen them?” Joanne asked, her interest suddenly piqued.
“No, but got evidence.”
Ryan palmed over nutrition bars to Alan and Joanne. “Keep them hidden and lose the wrapper when you’ve eaten it.” He told them, and in response to the questioning looks explained. “Found them. Just four bars laid deliberately.”
“How do you know it was deliberate?” Alan queried.
“Same place I came across the K ration biscuits the night before last.”
“Biscuits?” Joanne questioned aggressively. “You have biscuits and didn’t tell us?”
“Had.” Ryan answered. “There were two. Adam and I ate them.” Joanne shot him a withering look. “I could have kept the bars.” Ryan hit back. “But I didn’t.”
Joanne looked at her bar. “It’s in French.”
“Not so bloody obvious.” Ryan hissed. “M’longwe catches on we’re done for.”
“I was just looking.” Joanne returned, her anger restrained and at a low volume. “It’s in French. It might have peanuts or something in it.”
“At this point in your life do you really fucking care?” Ryan hissed.
Joanne stopped herself. The temptation to rip his head off was overwhelming. Doing it would almost certainly be suicide. Deliberately calming herself she returned his ire. “No, I suppose not.” She said.
Adam stepped in to the face off. “I think it’s government.” He turned to face Joanne. “And I agree with Ryan, it’s deliberate. They’ve seen us and are sending a message. The first stuff I thought was an accident, just dropped by someone when they were looking for us. Maybe even by one of the onion boys out scouting. The four protein bars are different. There is no way the onion boys have protein bars and just four tells me whoever left them has been watching us.”
“Why didn’t they leave a note?”
“To say what?” Ryan postulated. “Enjoy?”
“They could have left more food.” Joanne returned. The put down a weight on her.
“Like what?” Ryan queried. “Beef stew and ice cream might have been a bit obvious. It would probably have made us sick anyway.”
“Well screw you Ryan Lithgow.” Joanne hissed.
“We don’t need this.” Adam interjected. “Now is a time for us to pull together, not get into needless hostility.”
“He started it.” Joanne returned. “And you’re just as bad. We’re starving and you don’t share.”
“We’re sharing.” Adam insisted. “Food and knowledge.”
“What’s the next move then?” Joanne asked, her ire still raised at not being included.
“Back again tonight, see if there’s something more.” Adam said.
“More food.” Joanne said hopefully.
“Maybe food and maybe a message.”
“Why don’t we leave one?” Joanne suggested, the desperation clear in her voice.
“Like, Help?” Ryan asked.
“Like, our names. Like how can we help them to help us.”
“We’re already working on it.” Adam said.
“Working on it?” Joanne queried. “Like how?”
“Early stages. Nothing firm.” Ryan replied. It was clear neither he nor Adam was going to say anything more.
“So maybe they have something better.”
“And maybe it’s the onion boys pulling our chain.”
That concept had not so far occurred to Joanne. That the boys had thought of it made her feel even more left out.
That day had been a trial, even more than had become the norm. Joanne wanted to know more, ask a hundred questions. Ryan clearly did not want to answer them and Adam and Alan were going along with Ryan’s game.
It was made worse by the hope of an end, and unexpectedly on two fronts, the K’gozi making a rare appearance to announce that there was progress in his negotiations.
Each of the four was required to speak a short piece to the K’gozi’s smart phone.
“Name, rank and number only.” Ryan noted as the K’gozi stated his requirement. “You will say you are well and speak your name. That is it.” Not completely satisfied with the video clips but unable to discern malice or disinformation in them the K’gozi nevertheless told the four, “It would not be long now. The oppressors of a free Africa have at last seen sense. There will be no more white foreigners in our land and we will be compensated for our troubles. You should be proud.” Continuing. “The grizzly has been playing with us but has now agreed to pay two million dollars for each of the men and you.” Speaking directly to Joanne, “Will bring me three.”
Despite the malaise of incarceration and the heat of the afternoon Joanne could not rest. All three men predictably slept the sleep of the dead from mid morning. Anyone who took note or cared would have suspected something was wrong. M’longwe didn’t either take note or care and neither did the other three onion boys who always got the guard duties. Predictably Zidane, the boy rostered for night duty fell asleep and once again Ryan and this time Alan made their exit through the back of the hut. Once again they returned in the small hours and again with more food, this time a veritable horde. More protein bars, chocolate and Biltong dried meat slices, all to be consumed in secret.
This time Joanne would not be restrained. She waited patiently until they had eaten the ritual breakfast of flat breads, washed and toileted. Settled back in their already stifling hut and the guard unsuspecting she asked her questions.
“Who are they? Did you see them? Did you speak with them? Did they leave a message? Is there a plan? What do they want? Why don’t they show? Why don’t they speak? What are you doing all night? Where do you go? How far do you go? Is there a plan? Why won’t you tell me? Why can’t I go with you?”
The three guys had become a clique and as had become the norm were reticent to respond to Joanne’s enquiries. She went so far as to ask directly, “Have I done something wrong? Have I become untrustworthy? Are we no longer on the same side?”
As the unelected but undisputed leader Ryan hushed her. “Joanne.” He said. “There is no plan. Well not one we know of. We think we are being fattened up while they come up with a plan, hopefully one that will work this time. We think they are being ultra careful because of what happened before and yes, we are all on the same side, and no. You can’t go out at night. It’s too dangerous. The rank and file onion boys have become complacent; they’ve got used to us just being here and don’t really care too much about us blokes. But you, they look at you, they watch your every move. It’s no surprise that the K’gozi has put a three million dollar price on your head. It must be hard for him to contain these boys and look at them, mostly that’s what they are, just boys and chock full of testosterone. Give them half a chance and they would have no hesitation in taking turns.”
“I want to know.” Joanne said two mornings later, “What’s so important that you have to go out all night every night?” She’d asked much the same thing ever since the boys had started going out. At first it had been exciting to have them reconnoitre, to know the layout and hope for a way out. In Joanna’s head she had a map, not so good a one as the boys who all had practical experience outside, but a map nevertheless and knew if it came it she could find her way clear and away. It had not come to it yet and with the K’gozi’s revelation she didn’t see it happening. She also couldn’t understand why in the changed situation the boys continued with the risk. “And why does Adam smell of diesel?” She asked.
“Does he?” Ryan queried, sniffing his own hands and clothes.
“Adam.” Joanne told him. “Not you.”
Adam was sniffing his hands and agreed they did smell a little. “Best hope no one else notices.” He said. “I’ll do a proper wash up this time, maybe fall into the stream.”
“You shouldn’t go for breakfast.” Joanne told him. “In case anyone does notice. I’ll bring you something.”
“More grot.” Adam said, palming over a pair of sachets. “Better to eat these.”
“Thanks, but we can’t not go for food. It would instantly make them notice something was up.”
“You’re right.” Alan agreed. “Let’s you and I go get food for all four of us. It may be bland but it’s still food.”
“We go every night.” Ryan told her as the four consumed the pale unpalatable mush given out by the onion boys, which to be fair was what they too ate of a morning. “Because of what we bring back. And we’re out all night because we don’t know when or where the packet will turn up.”
“You said.” Joanne started.
“I know.” Adam interrupted, seeing where it was going. “It’s always in one of the same two places. We don’t know which and we don’t know when. We do have to be careful of the piquet changeovers in the middle of the night. There are a couple of times we’ve nearly bumped into them.”
“The middle of the night is not nearly dawn, and that’s when you come back smelling of diesel. There’s something going on you’re not telling me and I don’t like it.” Joanne told them all. “It’s not fair and it’s not right.”
“Look Joanne.” Ryan responded after a pause for thought. “We’ve been working hard to make sure we’re ready for whatever turns up. It may be it will all be unnecessary but we can’t rely on that. Just look what happened last time. If we need to run we will have a distraction and we know the route, if we have to fight we have help.”
“What kind of help?” Joanne asked directly, halting Ryan mid flow.
“There are people out there.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know.” Joanne snapped back. “I’m sick of your platitudes. Tell me.”
“Shh!” Ryan had shushed her. “Not so loud.”
“Not so fucking secret.” Joanne returned at a less voluminous but every bit as vociferous tone. “I’m sick of you boys playing your secret games. I have been through all this shit just like you. I am not the enemy.”
“No Joanne, but you are our weak link and at the same time our saving ticket. We have to protect you from yourself.”
“What do you mean, safety ticket?”
“I mean that we, that’s all us three blokes think if anything happened to you the K’gozi would cut his losses and that would be the end of the story. With you safe, we’re relatively safe.”
“Things can still go badly wrong. Negotiations could stall, there could be another botched rescue, any of us could get sick or die. Anything could happen.”
“If we see the opportunity, if it presents itself, we act.”
“And if they come after us?”
“That’s when our help comes. Vere doesn’t have enough men to take these insurgents on head first but he can stop them if they’re where he can ambush them.”
“He and his men have tracked us. It’s them sending food.”
The boys were surreptitiously making their preparations for the night excursion before it got dark. Each had collected a pocket of mud every morning when washing and now extracted the dried paste and remixed it with a little water. It would do as face camouflage and be easily washed off the following morning. Unusually all three were making up the paste and getting ready.
“We need you to cover for us.” Ryan told Joanne. “Distract M’longwe. Maybe turn over a bit more often as all three of us need to be out for a couple of hours tonight.”
“Why?” She asked. “What are you doing? Why take this risk?”
“There’s a path to clear and a meeting to make.” Ryan answered. “We can’t all go. Maybe tomorrow we can after we have a plan.” Then recognising Joanne’s rising ire at being left in the dark again. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.”
Dawn broke in its usual cacophony, waking Joanne and unusually a feeling that something was abnormal caused her to sit up, as if anything in their current situation could be called normal. In the half-light she could see M’longwe dozing in the doorway and the still forms of the guys under their blankets. All three still forms? No snoring, no fidgeting, no breathing. Ryan had said a couple of hours. They had never been back this late with all three gone before. “What the…?”
The percussion hit her in a single wave, the deafening blast of mind numbing sound assailing her senses a nano second before the body shaking, bone jarring thump hit. The air was instantly filled with flying particulate matter, dust, wood metal, flesh, blood, flame.
Thrown bodily against a wooden slat wall Joanne’s body weight half demolished the spindly structure as the roof, itself lifted by the blast collapsed onto her.
Enmeshed in a welter of wood and half rotten leaf Joanne lay, the air knocked out of her and her senses battered. A lifetime, but in reality just minutes later she returned to a form of sense. Aware that she was alive and pinned in the burning debris she tried to move her head and get her face into clear air. The strength had gone out of her and gasping for breath she felt trapped. Unable to move her arms enough to dislodge the wood and leaf matter trapping her Joanne became aware of sounds outside of her immediate world. Once again there was shooting, the unmistakable crack of a Kalashnikov rifle.
Gulping down her growing panic at being trapped the sudden desire to remain still overcame her.
Unexpectedly the weight of the roof lifted and she could see further than inches again to find Ryan standing over her, the woodwork supported in his arms.
“Can you move?” He asked, the strain clear in his voice.
With her arms unpinned, Joanne raked the muck from her face and pulling herself together, turned over and pushed herself into a position to get clear of the debris.
“Come on.” Ryan admonished. “I can’t hold this forever.”
With Joanne out from under, Ryan let the roof and remains of a wall fall back. As Joanne stood she felt a wave of nausea. She turned to see the utter chaos of the camp. Large swathes of the buildings had been destroyed, tossed like confetti into almost unrecognisable heaps. Fire engulfed some sections while flames flickered among the rest of the ruins with the smell of burned diesel fuel heavy in the air. Unlike during the government raid the few onion boys that remained upright were shaken, disorientated, burned and bleeding and seemingly unable even to put one solid foot in front of another.
“Come on.” Ryan urged. “They will come to their senses only too quickly. We must be gone before that happens.”
Shouldering a gun, Ryan led the way. The thought came into Joanne’s befuddled mind “Where the hell did he get a gun?” He seemed totally unaffected by the blast and steadying her as she too tottered, led her into the scorched and still smouldering undergrowth and to a disguised stache where he produced yet another gun and magazines plus four backpacks.
“Alan won’t be joining us.” Adam said as he emerged from the nearby foliage. Seeing the incomprehension on Joanne’s face he continued. “He shortened his fuse and then waited around too long to be sure he got the K’gozi. Poor beggar, he was too close. I saw his bomb take him out at the same time.”
“Bomb.” Joanne said. She still wasn’t completely compos mentis and although it would have been as plain as day to a child that some kind of bomb or bombs had caused the explosive devastation she still wasn’t taking it all in.
“Come on.” Ryan said again. “We have to move now and get space between us and them.”
Even as with backpack on as Joanne stumbled in Ryan’s wake her mind began to clear. This was not some blind rush through virgin jungle. The path they were on had been cleared in advance. Twenty minutes or so on, it seemed at once no time at all and yet an eternity with no sound of pursuit, Ryan called a halt. It was none too soon as none of the three was in good physical condition.
“There’s water in your bag.” Adam told Joanne as they watched Ryan pull foliage across the track and then pull a vine tight and tie it to another already rigged in a spring trap.
“It will slow them down and maybe give us some warning we are being followed.” Adam continued, and then went on to explain. “We saw the onion boys doing it and copied the idea.”
“You’ve been out here before.” Joanne observed.
“Just this far.” Adam returned. “Beyond here it’s guesswork, but I think that we can’t be far from a line or road. There must have been both sixty years ago, maybe there’s still one near. We find one and the going will be easier. We’ll also have a better idea of direction and if it’s a road a reasonable chance of help.”
Ryan joined them again. He looked in good shape. “You Ok?” He asked Joanne.
“Fine.” She answered. “Battered and bruised, but fine.”
“Good.” Ryan said. “Let’s get going then. I’ll lead for the next hour then you take over Adam?”
“We agreed twenty minutes.” Adam said.
“That was when there were going to be three of us.”
“There are.” Joanne interjected.
Ryan looked her up and down. “Not yet.” He said, then turning back to Adam. “OK, we’ll keep to the twenty minute stints then. If nothing happens, pause around midday and rethink.”
Adam agreed so long as he led off first and with Ryan conceding, set off immediately.
The path they were taking was some kind of animal track and as such didn’t need too much in the way of hacking out for human passage but did meander seemingly almost randomly. Heading up, Adam chose to not disturb the foliage where it was not absolutely necessary. For the tenth time Joanne pushed aside branches and exasperatedly queried to his back why Adam was not cutting a path.
He stopped and turned. The sweat was running off of him. “It makes tracking harder.” He said. “They see no marks and begin to doubt if they missed us leaving the trail.”
Maybe the third or fourth stream turned river and Adam called the halt. They sat on a small bank concealed from all but immediate view.
“What happened back there?” Joanne asked as she gnawed at a cold pre cooked rice ball.
“We got out.” Adam told her.
“Why?” Joanne asked. “When all we had to do was wait. All of us would be free then.”
“And you believe that?” Ryan returned. “Because I don’t.”
“I don’t either.” Adam agreed, “And nor did Alan.”
“On what basis?” Joanne queried. “The Kgozi had videos of us. That had to be his proof we were alive. So someone is negotiating for our release.”
“Maybe.” Adam conceded. “But once he had got the cash, and that’s if he ever gets it, would you actually trust the K’gozi to release us?”
“Maybe.” Joanne answered. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“Why should he?” Adam returned. “He hates us. My guess is he won’t even see the ransom. My money’s on as soon as he heard they’d paid up we would be used as target practice, you get gang raped and your throat cut and K’gozi and his thugs disappear back into the jungle.”
Joanne swallowed. The thought was too real, but she couldn’t just let it be. “So you let Alan die because you don’t trust the K’gozi.”
“We didn’t let Alan die. It was never in the plan for any of us to get killed. That shouldn’t have happened. It was an accident.”
“It nearly killed me as well. Was that an accident too?”
“Yes.” Ryan interjected. “And no. That was my fault. I laid the device too quickly and it rolled. It was supposed to just take out hut number two.”
“But why now?”
“The opportunity presented itself.”
“What opportunity?” Joanne pressed. “And where did the bombs come from?”
“We made them.” Adam said.
“You made them?” Joanne queried incredulously. “How?”
“Easy.” Ryan explained. “There were a handful of five gallon drums still laying about. We just needed to find enough that weren’t rotted through then fill them with the diesel still left in the fuel tank Adam found and place them strategically. A little kick at the right time and bingo, or more correctly, bango.”
“Diesel doesn’t go bang.” Joanne observed.
“With the right kick it does.” Ryan retorted.
“And you got that how?”
“Shed nine was the explosives store.”
“You told me there were only eight huts.”
“Adam found a ninth.”
“And in it was exactly what?”
“So what’s the significance?”
“In the undergrowth near it was a rusted old truck.”
“And in the truck?”
“A few useful bits and pieces.”
“Not exactly, but with the diesel enough to make some.”
“Enough to kill Alan.”
“That wasn’t the plan.”
“You had a plan?”
“We had a plan.”
“And you couldn’t include me in it?”
“We needed you to provide the distraction. If you were in on it you wouldn’t have played ball. You would have come up with objections, you would have wanted an active part.”
“So I was a distraction? How was that going to work?”
“Easy. So long as you were on your bed none of them ever noticed ours were just branches under the blankets. It was all M’longwe could do to not come in and touch. Only the threat of the K’gozi kept him and a dozen others in check.”
Joanne narrowed her eyes. “What if he had done?”
“We’d have shouted out and the K’gozi would have sorted him.”
“You weren’t there.”
“One of us was. Always.”