Behind Ryan and before Joanne’s eyes the undergrowth coalesced into a human figure. The foliage parted, incredibly slowly and silently to reveal an armed camouflage dressed man.
Joanne was the first to notice, the two males far more fatigued than they would like to have admitted. Joanne’s stiffening and inhaled breath alerted an exhausted Ryan who jerked to see what had alarmed her.
“Jesus Christ!” He expleted, rolling from seated to prone, scrabbling for the weapon he had been toting all night.
“Leave it.” The figure ordered in a low and authorative tone. “And be quiet. They are near.”
Bells were ringing, stars flashing in Joanna’s head. She knew the guy. Well not exactly knew him but recognised him. She had seen him for not more than a half hour back in the seismic camp. “Beko?” She questioned. Where the name came from she didn’t know.
He nodded and lifted his finger to his lips, then beckoned to follow him.
Joanne had her hand out to prevent Ryan from precipitate action. She need not have been concerned. He had the gun in his hands but was still struggling with the safety lock. He had acted in haste and recanted almost immediately on hearing the name. “You bastard.” He exclaimed. “You frightened the hell out of me.”
“Keep it down.” Beko told him. “I don’t want them on us before we are ready.”
Mindful of Beko’s words Joanne whispered “I don’t want them on us at all.”
Beko moved slowly, a practiced manoeuvre to lower himself onto his haunches. His voice as low as his position. “Leave the packs stood and come very quietly with me. Not a sound now.”
Ryan had not told Joanne the truth. There was a plan, in fact two of them that coalesced into one. All had risks. Vere’s plan was to wait for the piquet change out that happened somewhere just after midnight and silently take them out then with his small force sweep through the camp, two bricks of four targeting the sleeping insurgents, the third freeing the hostages.
Ryan’s plan wasn’t a full plan at all. It sort of came together bit by bit. He and Adam had first thought that just knowing what was what and where was where then making sure they had a prepared route out and making the run as soon as it was dark would give them all at least a good lead. The question of taking Joanne had become an issue. The guys could get away with bulking up something under their blankets. Not so with Joanne.
The forays in the night had found that not only was there a fuel tank but that it had residual diesel fuel in it. Adam wouldn’t have wanted to trust the fuel in a vehicle but it was still a hydrazine and would therefore burn if the right ignition source were provided. That however was going to be a problem. The first thought was to fill half a dozen of the five gallon cans Adam had found, place them behind the relevant huts, tip them over and start a fire, when it got hot enough the diesel would make it impossible to put out. The problem with that scenario was both the risk of starting a fire and the time it would take until the diesel caught would allow the onion boys inside the hut to escape. Then Ryan found the truck and rummaging around in the dark found a very familiar metal box and the plan changed.
It changed again when two nights later David Beko touched Alan. It had been the fourth day Beko had left food for the hostages and time to talk to them. Richard Vere’s plan had changed as well. He too had watched Ryan, Alan and Adam fill and prepare the fuel containers one by one and saw by the means of placement the intent.
Alan turned, thinking he had snagged a branch and froze in shock. Ryan too turned to scold Alan for his noise and also froze. The opportunity for escape had come.
With Adam, Ryan and Joanne into the undergrowth and intrinsically safe Beko reset the scene. He was tired from an all night vigil but buoyed up by the proximity of violence. Corporal DeSalis was a willing and able associate in the deception. He had taken Adam’s ragged jacket and standing it up on a bush so it looked at first like a person sat, added it to the pile of backpacks on the bank.
“Now we must get you across the river.” Beko told the three. “There is a place fifty metres upstream but we must be quick because they are close.”
Beko and DeSalis did not cross, but handed the three over to Richard Vere, waiting on the other bank. He too, after a brief reunion left them in the care of one of his band with the strict instruction to keep low and hidden.
“This is unlikely to go wrong.” He told them, “But you never can tell.” Even as he spoke his head tilted, his hand up to the earpiece. “They are very near now so I must go.”
The onion boys came, just six of them and considerably worse for wear, their clothing ragged and singed, their faces dirty but carrying a look of determination. They came carefully but quickly, one of them with a fresh bloody streak on his leg. Ryan’s trap must have worked.
They halted, still in the undergrowth as their lead saw the backpacks. It was not the K’gozi.
Warily the onion boys fanned out, looking for a trap. Seeing none but still wary as there was no sound or movement at the pack pile they advanced on. Vere had been unsure as to the intent of this group, whether they wanted to recapture their assets or take revenge on them. The latter proved the case as a hail of bullets streamed into the packs and hollow where Adam, Ryan and Joanne had been sitting. Vere waited on the far bank as the insurgents realised they had been fooled and stopped shooting. The lead looked up and about himself trying to make sense, figure out what to do next. Vere did not give him time to think, firing accurate rounds into his target not thirty yards distant and thereby signalling his number three brick to target the remaining five. The firefight was brief in the extreme, not a single round being offered in return.
“Now that’s how you do an ambush.” Vere said to himself, and then to his troops, “There are another five out there. Let’s be careful.”
The voice of N’dabe Phillips whispered into Vere’s earphone “Delta one this is five. I have them all. They are vectoring right.”
It was no more than Vere would expect. Good troops would seek to outflank the attackers, poor troops to run away. The second option would have been more likely excepting that even in a shocking state, hairless and with burned skin hanging on his face the K’gozi was out for revenge. Although not expecting a fight this time he was prepared for it. He had won his fights to date and would win again. The K’gozi was confident and angry but he had never come across opposition of the calibre of Richard Vere’s team, and now he was outnumbered and unknowingly his flanking move outflanked by Vere’s second brick.
The fusillade came as the K’gozi moved to cross the river. The choice had to be a one by one or all at once dash across the open space created by the shallow water. The K’gozi chose the dash and ran into a killing ground. Three of his boys were down before they were halfway and he too took a round into his right side but made it across and kept going. The bullets eased and the K’gozi realised that it was because his immediate assailants would be shooting toward the ambush group. Still enraged, even he knew the game was up. Escape to fight another day was his option now and then he ran into Ryan. To be fair, it was all three, Ryan, Adam and Lance Corporal Tobote who fired their guns simultaneously, filling the K’gozi’s torso with lead that at that range went straight through, causing horrific irreparable injuries to his flesh and organs, the impact of multiple strikes stopping him in his tracks and punching his body backward into a scarlet haze of blood. Crashing down onto the foliage at his feet the K’gozi thrashed and writhed in his death throes, even with so much flesh and muscle damage, his back arching uncontrollably before finally succumbing to the inevitable end. The corpse lay gruesome and bloody, the clothing charred and exposed flesh blistered.
In any other circumstance Joanne would have been revolted and would have to look away. After seeing the callous deaths handed out to her colleagues it was a form of consolation, even revenge to see her primary antagonist suffer the same fate.
Richard Vere appeared out of the bush with a worried look on his face that eased on confronting the situation.
“That’s all but one of them.” He said. “And I don’t think he’s a threat. David is keeping an eye on him but he’s a good quarter mile away and not hanging around.”
“Is that it over?” Joanne asked.
“Not yet.” Richard answered. “We’ve the wounded to collect and the dead to bury then a two day hike to the nearest pick up point. With a day’s rest do you think you all can make it?”
Of the eleven onion boys who had made the attack seven including the K’gozi were dead, the bank and river water red with blood. The three injured had chest and abdominal wounds that without swift medical intervention did not hold a good prognosis but they received the best treatment that could be administered while Richard took a brick back to the camp looking for survivors and to destroy arms.
Like their compatriots at the river the two survivors he found were not likely to make it and Richard had his men prepare graves for all the onion boys. It may have been more expedient to, as the onion boys had done with their previous dead, burn the corpses particularly with the state they were in. Richard chose not to. The smell of charred flesh and burned diesel was all too strong in the air as it was and they had to dig a grave for Alan anyway.
Richard did his count of the bodies, some of which were just a pile of charred bones, to find that from his teams observations there were another three onion boys missing. A circumferential search found their trail, heading back North. Vere set piquets that night just in case as for the first time in a month Joanne, Ryan and Adam enjoyed a genuinely nourishing meal, this time in a jungle clearing but without guards. Richard had made it clear that the three were not going back to the encampment.
“Do you think M’longwe was one of them?” Joanne asked as she spooned the chicken supreme. “I mean that got away.”
“Definitely not.” Ryan answered. “I made sure of that before I got you out.”
Joanne was on the verge of asking how he could be sure and then the recollection of shots before the roof was lifted came back to her. She nodded. There was no need to incriminate Ryan. Shooting the K’gozi was an act of self defence. M’longwe would have been in cold blood.
“I do have a question.” She asked instead. “As I’ve been left out of all this. What was the ‘opportunity’? It seems to me like it didn’t turn up, you made it.”
“In a way we did.” Ryan returned.
He was about to say more when Joanne turned on him. “And because of that you killed Alan.”
“That’s not fair and it’s not true.” Adam interjected in Ryan’s defence. “We all agreed.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. It was a bit of a last minute thing and it got complicated.”
“Complicated enough not to include me and to get Alan killed.”
“That’s probably my fault.” Richard Vere put in. “I provided the bad news and the means to make Adam’s plan work.”
“Do me the honour of explaining to a stupid female what the supposedly bad news was and your way around it.”
“No one said you were stupid.” Ryan told Joanne. “It was a case of we couldn’t discuss what were doing in earshot of M’longwe, Zidane or the others. I told you a while ago that you’re the only one they noticed. That meant we couldn’t discuss it in front of you.”
“Never?” Joanne questioned. “Not so much as a hint?”
“Joanne.” Ryan responded. “You don’t ever just listen. You always have an opinion no matter what we say. It would have turned into an argument.”
Joanne took umbrage at the accusation even though she accepted it was probably true. It still rankled to be left out.
“So what was this bloody news?” She asked grumpily.
“Forward Oil found out their man was already dead and were butting out.” Richard said. “The whole ransom deal was bust and the Army were back in the game.”
Joanne didn’t need to ask where that would be going. “So you came up with an overnight plan that I couldn’t be part of.”
“No.” Adam told her. “The plan just changed. We were going to set fire to the camp then I found some old boosters and detonators and Ryan came up with a way to turn our cans of diesel into bombs. But we needed matches and fuses. David brought them to us.”
“David, David Beko. You know him.” Adam half gestured to David, just across from the fire. “We saw only him until two nights ago when he took Ryan and me to Richard and he told us how things stood and that his team could either help us in our plan of if we acted alone his team could protect our escape.”
Joanne was temporarily stuck for words. “If it was that cut and dried how come Alan died?” She asked. “You said something about a short fuse.”
“He didn’t volunteer that one, he insisted it.” Ryan said. “We knew it was going to be the awkward bomb but it was necessary if we were going to do it at all. That one was the K’gozi bomb. The drum was a bastard to get in position and there was no real cover. It was either that one first and that would put you at risk or fire it when the others went. Alan chose to do that.”
“It didn’t work.” Joanne observed.
“Close though.” Adam replied. “You saw the state of him. He was burned badly. If Alan hadn’t burned him and all his lieutenants maybe he would have been harder to kill.”
“A life for a life.” Joanne postulated. “His for mine.”
Richard had not lied. A good two full days of trekking through virgin jungle lay ahead of them before finally and thankfully on the third morning they burst out onto a road. A road where not a hundred yards away an Occidental truck driven by Jacob Muwazi waited. This time the truck bed was not full of sacks although there were sacks present. Each however had been stuffed with softer items, perhaps bedding or towels in order to provide a more comfortable ride. The thought was there although it didn’t work out quite so nicely with fifteen people crammed onto the rear truck bed. Crazily, five hours down the gravel road and they were in civilization again. Not by any means a large town but one with a hotel, baths, telephones, a number of bars and a nearby landing strip.
The hotel was no Hilton, not even on par with the place she had stayed in on the coast but a real shower with real soap and night with a proper bed and sheets even if the temperature discouraged the top sheet was a real luxury. Overnight the staff had even washed all her and the guy’s clothing. ‘Never again,’ Joanne promised herself, would she decry hotel standards.
Next morning the plane came. Not the plane she had flown into the jungle on but a much newer and shiny version of the same format, maybe even the same make.
Stepping off the plane came Jason and Sir John.
Joanne swore under her breath. Clean she and her clothing may be but her attire was still the grubby looking coveralls and her hair was unkempt, she’d washed and brushed it but it was still a mess and she’d not seen makeup for a month. It was not fair for them to see her in that state.
“Who the hell are they?” Ryan questioned out of the side of his mouth as the pair crossed the tarmac toward the waiting party of Vere, Joanne, Ryan and Alan, the only westerners to come from the jungle. Those who had survived from the initial raid and had not been taken prisoner had been repatriated a month ago. Vere too had cleaned up, with a fresh shirt and no webbing or gun. His men had done their usual job of making themselves scarce, not wanting to alarm the visitors.
“Jason Tully and Sir John Gresley.” Adam answered.
“And they are?” Ryan asked.
“The bosses from London.” Joanne told him.
Vere had said that the plane would be bringing in some Occidental reps. “People to check you’re OK to travel.” He’d said. These were no medics, although as they approached a medic could be seen exiting the plane.
All three had just wanted out and were looking forward to getting on even the rattletrap they had flown in on. That a medical check up was on the cards did not surprise them. In truth all three were emaciated even with the four days of decent food, in quality as well as quantity. The first day Vere had deliberately held back, knowing that too much and too rich food on a shrunken stomach can cause more problems than enough. Since then the three had eaten foil pack combat rations with Vere’s men until check in to the hotel last night. Even then Vere warned them off of heavy meals.
“Steak sounds great and I bet you’re salivating at the thought but trust me, your stomach’s won’t take it. Try a small burger or fish. It will sit so much better.”
Vere may have been right but it still left the three hungry. In the month of captivity they had become used to a shortage of food and to feel hunger now that it was available was an odd sensation. Even Joanne had devoured at least three croissants with plenty of cheese and meat slices plus four boiled eggs. An hour later and she too felt hungry again. The appearance of Jason and Sir John exacerbated the hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach.
“Good god.” Jason expleted as he took in that he was actually seeing Joanne. On entering the tiny room that functioned as an airport lounge he, like Sir John took half a minute to acclimatise from the bright exterior light to the semi gloom. He knew there were three survivors from the Occidental team, only one of which he actually knew. The shabby figures in the dowdy room he’d dismissed at first as locals and was genuinely shocked to realise who they were. As his eyes acclimatised, he surveyed their gaunt faces and recognition dawned.
“Jesus Christ Joanne.” He expleted again. “What the hell happened? Are you all right?”
Joanne was caught between two choices. She could either state the obvious or play it down. She really wanted to tell Jason, “I’m OK.” Not to admit anything,
“No she’s not fucking all right you dick.” Ryan interjected. “What the fuck did you expect? We’ve been held hostage in the fucking jungle for over a month, marched to and fro on food that wouldn’t keep a fucking sparrow alive, seen a dozen of our people shot in front of our eyes never knowing if we’re the next. We’ve been exposed to every disease known to man, had the shits and been constantly dehydrated. These clothes are the same ones we had a month ago my underpants are shredded. What the fuck do you think hers are like?”
Jason had not been prepared for the invective and stepped back. He knew all these things were true but hadn’t actually thought about it. It was a truth he wasn’t ready to take. He’d put Joanne in that situation but he was trying not to blame himself. There was no way he could have known or suspected this outcome.
“I’m sorry.” Jason said. “I.”
“Can it.” Joanne told him. “I’m alive. We’re alive. Now we just want to go home.”
“What? Like that?”
It was too much. “I don’t bloody care.” Joanne shouted. “Can’t you bloody see that I’m beyond caring?”
Jason reached out and Joanne flinched, retracted before he could touch. Sir John came to his rescue.
“Right.” He said. “We need to get some sustenance in all three of you. Get you checked out and back to civilisation with some new clothes. Now who’s who?”
“Adam Tomes.” Adam held out his hand, still just skin and bone despite the four days of meals. “This is Ryan and Joanne.”
“You will have to be careful.” Richard Vere put in.
Sir John and Jason turned to face him. “It can be damaging to reintroduce western foods too soon. Their systems will take time to reacclimatise.”
“And you are?” Sir John asked.
“You some sort of expert?” Jason queried.
“Of a sort.” Vere answered. “Let’s just say this wouldn’t be my first rodeo.”
Jason twigged. “You’re the mercenary.” He opined, his words harsh.
“Who saved our arses.” Ryan said in Vere’s defence. “And I’ve not had the grace to thank him or his boys for it.”
“Here, here.” Adam agreed. “Thank you Richard. Thanks to your team.”
“Just doing our job.” Richard returned. “Our big regret is not saving more of you.”
“Well.” Ryan returned. “We would agree that, but it is what it is.”
Over the two days on the trail they had all sat together in the evenings and the story had come out. The three now knew the full story of events at the survey camp, the Government rescue failure and Vere’s part in it together with the final plan in all its risk and reward.
“Let’s get the Doc in then.” Sir John said. The Doctor was patiently waiting in the doorway, a huge medical bag on his shoulder. “And while he’s doing his thing I need to know two things. Firstly what can we do for you.” And offering his mobile telephone. “Second is do any of you need to let your loved ones know you’re alive?”
Ryan looked at Joanne, but she shook her head. Mike wouldn’t care. He might pretend that he did, but Joanne knew in her heart of hearts that she was just a fill in, a convenience. Even if she knew where he was and what he was doing she wouldn’t have called. She never did. Just text, Mike had told her. I can’t talk if I’m flying and calls across the world cost a fortune. Text and I’ll call you when I can. Joanne strongly suspected that meant Mike would call when Mike didn’t have a girl on his arm or in his bed.
Adam took the phone and went with it into another room.
“You not got family?” Ryan asked.
“Not really.” Joanne answered, reluctant in the extreme to discuss her personal life in front of Jason and Sir John. “Not that you could worry about.” Then deflecting the enquiry. “And you?”
“Not really.” Ryan parodied. “Not that you could worry about.”
Joanne smiled. Of course he was teasing her. “I’ll phone me mam when Adam’s done.” He said. “She’ll be pleased.”
The flight out of the small township was every bit as eventful as the flight into the jungle had been and Joanne was glad of that. Glad that Jason, the untouchable Jason was bumped and jerked until he was pale, that at least he got to understand just a little of what he’d put her through. Joanne would have liked Sir John to suffer as well but it was plain that he had been through flights like this before, even enjoyed it.
“Air force.” Sir John told Joanne when she asked. He was nothing like so hard or unapproachable as his reputation had it. “Nimrods, before our stupid blind government scrapped them. Low level and nothing to touch them, even now.”
The conversation was over brandies in business class on the long flight back to Europe. Her bag and passport retrieved from the survey camp, Joanne was back in the clothes she had bought in London. Not exactly fashionable, the look was exacerbated by being too large for her still thin form, a form that was lost in the large airline seat. A seat that with two brandies inside her induced slumber.
There had been another night on the coast, this time in a much more upbeat hotel then this flight back to Paris. There would be no overnight for her in Paris this time, just a quick-change connection to Gatwick and then a taxi to her flat. Sir John opted to not to accompany her on that last leg but to take the jet to the city. Maybe it was that her connecting flight was with a low cost carrier and didn’t have a business class. Maybe it was that he thought she would be OK from there. Joanne didn’t care. By that point fatigue had once again put her beyond caring.
“Take some time.” Sir John had told her. Joanne couldn’t. Her flat felt alien, even the little pizzeria she had used to frequent felt alien. It was irrelevant that she had lived in that area, lived in that flat for six years. The month in the jungle had changed her. Even the train into the city was somehow strange. It was the same train at the same time from the same station that she had taken for the last three years but now it felt different. She would make this journey and be in the office early just like she had been before. The thought had bugged her all night, the prospect of walking into the office to be confronted with a staged mass greeting by all those familiar but unknowing faces. People who would know that she had been through a trial but could never understand. Being in before any of them would eliminate that embarrassment.
Night security looked up as Joanne came through the door. “Morning.” He said, the same as he always had and just like she’d never been gone. Her desk was the same, just like she’d never been gone. Until Herbert got in, and he was always late, Joanne had the pod to herself. At this time of day she had the entire office to herself. She turned her computer on and made coffee while the machine came to life. God but the place was cold. Waiting for the kettle to boil Joanne was glad of the heavy cardigan. All last night she had the heating on full and still hadn’t got warm. After Africa, London was so cold. Even with coffee and the little blow heater dragged out of her bottom drawer Joanne put her coat back on as she trawled the internet.
Just as Adam had said, SSC had gone bust in the nineties and all their data with them. Reading through the ups and downs of the company on Wikipedia a glimmer exposed itself. As an American concern, SSC was obliged to share data with the USGS. A search on USGS data for western Africa might lead to something and bingo, there it was. Not in its original format but unmistakable to the trained eye. A geological map so detailed it had to be based on seismic data and not only of prospect 40112 but all the adjacent concessions. Occidental had been wasting their time, the data was there all along.
To be sure, Joanne opened up the 40112 data on file and was cross matching it as the first person to arrive at a normal time for a day in the office arrived.
In her pod, Joanne was effectively hidden and only the warm kettle alerted Kate to the presence of another person. Looking around the office Kate noted the faint back glow from Joanne’s computer screen as the only sign of life. Intrigued, and coffee in hand she wandered over.
Joanne was at her desk intent on the display and scribbling notes as she went, a ream of paper already accumulated on her desk. What do you say to someone who has just got back from being held hostage for a month? Joanne was clearly consumed by what she was doing and Kate thought to just walk away when Joanne turned.
“Hi.” Kate opened. “Welcome back.”
Joanne breathed out. Here it started. “Hi.” She returned. Kate was always one of the first in and in a previous life they usually had a few minutes over coffee before the rest of the office turned in. Joanne wanted to say more but was at a loss where to start.
“You OK?” Kate asked. “They said you wouldn’t be back until next week at the earliest.”
“What would I do?” Joanne returned. “I can’t settle. Can’t relax. Might as well get it off my chest here.”
“You need me, I’m here.” Kate offered. “I’m told it was hard. I was going to drop by tonight. I don’t want to intrude, just to know you’re OK.”
“I’m OK.” Joanne said. “Just cold.”
The office wasn’t cold, not really cold. It was late November and the heating was on. It had been on for maybe half an hour and would get to regulation temperature soon, but it was by no means really cold.
“You need more coffee.” Kate observed, noting that Joanne’s cup was empty. “I’ll make you some.”
“I’ll do it.” Joanne returned. “I am under orders. Richard tells me that even now I have to be careful, wean myself back onto processed foods as it were. Too much too soon will do more harm than good.”
“Richard Vere. You wouldn’t know him.”
“No. More of a bush man. Kept tabs on us all the time then got us out.”
“Another day.” Joanne said. “Got a lot to catch up on.”
“Coffee though?” Kate returned.
Joanne acquiesced. “Go on then, but as weak as anything with hardly any sugar.”
Kate was back in mere moments and seated herself in Herbert’s chair. It was clear Joanne would not be left in peace.
“They didn’t tell us much.” Kate opened. “Just that you’d all gone missing and maybe were hostages for something. It never even hit the news.”
There was no way Joanne was going to say nothing without offending Kate. “What did they say?” She asked.
“Some insurgents, that’s the term Jason used. Some insurgents had kidnapped you and some others of our field people. I remember Jo asked if it were ISIS and Jason told her he didn’t believe so. He didn’t say no though.”
“Not ISIS.” Joanne confirmed, “Although we never did find out who they were. I mean we knew some of their names but not who they represented.”
“How can you say not ISIS then?”
“No prayers and ate pork? What do you think?”
“OK, insurgents then. The story was some of our people got shot but you were OK.”
“Depends on what OK means.” Joanne returned. “If you mean constantly exhausted, hungry and in fear for your life well then I was OK.”
Kate had no answer. “You have lost weight.” She diverted instead. “Even under the coat I can tell.”
“On half a raw potato and a couple of strips of charred monkey meat a day so would you.”
Kate wrinkled her nose. “Bad.” She said.
“Worse. They tell you how many some was?”
“So you don’t even know how many went in and how many came out?”
“No. He just said some of our people. Jason wouldn’t go further.”
“Seventeen. That’s seventeen westerners went into the jungle. Not a single local. I don’t know how many of them were murdered, I think Richard said more than twenty but it was a lot. Seventeen of us went into the jungle, three came out.”
Kate’s eyebrows had been rising in incredulity as Joanne spoke. “Jesus!” She expleted. “Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.” Joanne returned. And now you have an idea as to why I need computer search time. Before Jason gets here and forces me to go home.”
“Got it.” Kate said, and made her exit. “Seriously, there’s anything you need. I’m here.”
Jason was late in. He’d flown back with Ryan and Adam on the Brussels flight and just got in to town. He’d left them in a downtown hotel to check in at the office. Still in lightweight slacks and jacket but with a clean shirt he’d hardly sat down before being told Joanne was in at her desk. Jason stood like he’d been stung and marched over to Joanne’s pod.
“Good morning.” Jason greeted. It wasn’t a happy greeting although Herbert returned it as such. Joanne was less effusive but polite.
“Herbert, Can you give me a minute.” Jason asked. It wasn’t a question.
Herbert stood to go when Joanne stopped him. “It’s all right.” She told him. “I’ll go talk with Jason in his office.”
Behind closed doors Jason pointedly asked of her. “What are you
doing? You’re supposed to be taking time off.”
“To do what?” Joanne queried.
“Get better.” Jason told her. “Physically and mentally.”
“I’m good.” Joanne told him.
“No you’re not.” Jason returned. “The Doc specifically said you are undernourished, traumatised and maltreated. You agreed to see specialists and take time out.”
“I’ll see them.” Joanne told him. “When you have arranged the appointments. That’s what we agreed.”
“We also agreed you would take time off.”
“And I will. Just not now.”
“What the hell Joanne? You’ve been through hell and back. You need to go home, build your strength and get over it.”
“I got over it.” Joanne assured him. “A week ago.”
“A week ago you were still in the bloody jungle.”
Was it only a week? To Joanne it already felt like a lifetime ago, the images in her mind sharp but somehow disconnected from the reality of now. She did a mental run back in time and the thought flitted through Joanne’s mind that around now that week ago was when David Beko showed himself. She glanced down to look at her watch, a watch that was long gone into the pockets of a now dead insurgent.
“A week ago.” She said, “We were fighting for our lives. I dealt with that issue back then.”
“Fighting? That’s not what I heard. I’ve not seen a report from him yet but I thought the Vere fellow got you out.”
“He didn’t have enough men to storm the camp. We got ourselves out. To be fair, the boys got us out.”
“His team made sure we stayed out.”
“I think you and I need to sit down and tell the whole story.” Jason told her.
“I thought that’s what the shrink was for.” Joanne answered. “But for me it’s history now. There are some things I need to get my head around and I need my desk. I need my computer.”
“Why?” Jason asked. “What are you looking into?”
“Couple of things.” Joanne answered truthfully. “Firstly, who the hell the K’gozi was and what he wanted with us. Second, if there is already data out there on 40112.”
“K’gozi?” Jason queried.
“Leader of our captors group.” Joanne explained. “We never understood who they were or what they wanted. The opinion was that it was for money. We don’t know. You get any ransom demands here?”
“Not that I am aware of.” Jason returned. It was a lie and Joanne saw it.
“He told us he was asking nine million dollars.” She said. “Who was he asking?”
“I have no idea.” Jason told her, back in control now and his face impassive.
“So?” Joanne asked. “Are you going to kick me out or let me stay?”
Jason was wont to tell her ‘go home’ right there and then. He knew she would protest and make a scene. Jason did not need a scene in the office, particularly now. Particularly not including Joanne. “Lunchtime?” He offered. “I’ve got to go and get cleaned up then I’ll pick you and the boys up for lunch. You’ve got until then.” It wasn’t actually an offer, but it was one Joanne could not refuse.
Re attired in his ubiquitous flawless business suit Jason returned as promised, to find Joanne still up to her eyes in the computer. “Lunch.” He ordered. “Close it down now or I will unplug you.”
“It’s not uploaded to the server.” Joanne complained.
“I don’t care. That can wait.” Jason told her. “With me now.”
Reluctantly Joanne hit save and close.
Feeling considerably underdressed in comparison to Jason, Joanne followed him out of the office and down to a waiting car. Joanne stopped dead. A taxi was one thing, this Bentley was another. Jason was clearly unfazed and on opening the door ushered Joanne in then climbed in alongside her.
“That looked interesting.” Jason observed as Joanne sat back into the heavily upholstered seat.
Joanne turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
“Looked to me like a presentation in draft.” Jason returned. “And not the one you did before on 40112.”
Joanne could not deny it. “Some of it is.” She admitted.
“So this is about?” He asked.
“Catching up.” Joanne said. “Before we got raided there were some good results. I wanted to see how that changed things.”
“It didn’t.” Jason told her. “Herbert handled that data. It wasn’t enough.”
“But did he discount data from morning shoots?” She returned. “We did that and it all started to make sense.”
“It’s irrelevant. Forward have pulled the plug.”
“Why?” Joanne asked.
“Taking too long.” Jason replied. “No results mean no concession. No concession means no place in Africa for them. No point in throwing good money at something that’s not going to happen.”
“What if we can show a result?”
“Joanne. Herbert has been through it. The data is rubbish. You said so yourself. I don’t care how good you think you are, even you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Especially not now.”
“What do you mean, not now?”
“Joanne. At the best you can be described as compromised. If I let anyone see anything you produce now I’d be pilloried, and rightly so.”
“Why? You think suddenly I’m rendered stupid by a bunch of boys with guns?”
“Not a bit of it, but you must accept that you are emotionally and psychologically vulnerable.”
“Bollocks.” She responded. “Pissed off I’ll give you. Vulnerable, not a chance.”
“Annoyed.” Jason offered.
“No.” Joanne replied. “Pissed off. That’s more than annoyed.”
“So, pissed off then.” Jason acceded. “Anything particular?”
Joanne hesitated, then thought to herself ‘This is the perfect time.’ “With you. With the company, with the world.”
“Me?” Jason returned, surprise in his voice and on his face.
“Yes, you. Mr high and mighty pretending you are a great white knight flying in to my rescue and telling me what I can and can’t do. What a trauma I’ve been through and how I feel. You have no bloody idea.”
Jason blushed, well coloured anyway. “The company?” He queried, changing tack.
“The company did not do its homework. None of us needed to be there. The whole bloody Craton was surveyed in the sixties.”
“Data’s gone.” Jason returned.
“No it isn’t.” Joanne told him. “You just have to look in the right place.”
“This your presentation?”
“It will be.” She responded.
“Save it.” Jason said. “It will never see the light of day.”
“Even if it gets us back in the game? If it get’s Forward their concession.”
“That’s great for Forward, but not a money spinner for us. We need boots on the ground surveying. That’s our business, not trawling dead files.”
Joanne sat back. A thought came into her head and wouldn’t let go even as the car pulled into the swankiest hotel she’d ever seen.
“This is unfair.” Joanne said as Jason led her into the restaurant. Still in her heavy coat and cardigan she was definitely out of place. The room was light, airy and even at that time of day the few people who were already there were either in high quality gentlemen’s business suits or haute couture fashion.
“You could lose the coat.” Jason offered.
“I’m cold.” Joanne returned.
“Well we’ll sit you by a heater then.” Jason responded. “The boys should be down any minute now.”
Sure enough and to her relief Adam and Ryan entered the room, both as casually dressed as was she. Both still thin but now with the dullness gone from their faces.
Joanne rose to hug them both.
You could tell the waiter wanted to look down his nose, even evict these ne’er-do-wells. Jason’s card convinced him otherwise. They all ate light although in this establishment that didn’t’ mean cheaply.
“So, the purpose of this lunch.” Jason said as the meals were delivered. All eyes turned to him. “Is to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
“And that page is?” Ryan queried.
“There is some press interest in this. Let’s all be aware of our own positions and that of the company.”
“Meaning? Adam questioned.
“I want to clear the air.” Jason told him. “Both you and Ryan have spoken to me at length but in isolation from Joanne. Some of the things you have voiced could shall we say, have a detrimental impact on the corporate image. I don’t know if Joanne feels the same but she too has spoken of a different set of concerns. Let’s lay them all on the table and mitigate them to the satisfaction of everyone. Most of all let’s clarify what is and what isn’t going to get said in public.”
“You want to gag us somehow?” Adam queried. “And if so, how and why?”
“I don’t’ want this to be in any way contentious.” Jason told them. “There is no way the company or I would want to inhibit any of you describing your experiences. I would however request and require that supposition and opinion be kept entirely between us.”
“Because, like I said, your concerns and suppositions are contentious and could be damaging in both the short and long term to the company and thereby yourselves.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Not directly, but if the company suffers there will inevitably be job losses.”
“So it is a threat.”
“Look at it this way, what actually happened and what you know happened is open season. What you think happened and don’t actually know should be kept that way. At least for now.”