The men in the bar scattered. The ones still unable to run were the only ones arrested.
A few minutes later Hannibal and his men watched Sefu’s men getting into their vehicles.
“Looks like they aren’t going to bail out their pals who got hauled off.” Hannibal said. “Okay, get aboard and follow them. Give me the binoculars, we can’t get too close.”
The men going home to lick their wounds were easy enough to follow. Only once they got off onto a very bumpy road through the jungle did it get harder.
“I don’t understand.” Drummond said, sounding baffled. “This road doesn’t go anywhere. At least nowhere you can get a vehicle. It comes to a dead end in another mile or so.”
He was right. The road ended at the remains of an old building that looked to have been deserted for a century. The vehicles could get no further, but there was no sign of the enemy. Hannibal frowned.
“Okay, everybody out and take a look around.” Hannibal said. “They didn’t fly off into the sky, they must be around here somewhere.”
It was Face who found it. Tire tracks. They led into what appeared to be thick undergrowth, but was actually something else.
“A gate?” Hannibal said. A half dozen of the men lifted the “gate” and moved it aside. It was simply a barrier made of vegetation and when moved aside it revealed a track, wide enough for a Land Rover.
“Nice, Face.” Hannibal said.
Face smiled. He hadn’t lost all of his old skills it seemed. But he wasn’t looking forward to what came next. To going in there.
“Right, we’re staying on foot.” Hannibal said. “And everybody stay quiet.”
The track went on for a half mile and opened into a clearing. Hannibal’s squad didn’t move into the clearing, because it was occupied. Several jeeps and Land Rovers, including the ones they’d followed here, stood around, parked up. There was also a small wooden building, barely more than a shack. As they watched, a man came out of the shack, smoking a cigarette and drinking from a tin mug. The vehicles were guarded.
“It’s a parking lot.” Hannibal said. “Question is, where’s the camp?”
“It can’t be too far away.” Face said. “People won’t want to tramp far through the jungle to get to their cars.” He knew for sure he wouldn’t. The surroundings were starting to get to him. The noises. The damp heat. The smells.
“Then we need to pick up the trail of our friends. Everybody spread out. Back here in fifteen minutes.”
They met up again as arranged and followed one of Drummond’s men. He had found a well worn path leading north away from the “parking lot”.
“Great.” Hannibal still kept his voice quiet, wary of the nearby guard. “Okay, we can’t just stroll along here in case we meet anyone coming the other way. We’ll have to go parallel to it. I’ll need a couple of good trackers on point. Fa…”
Abasi called out softly to the security men and a couple of them came forward.
“Trackers,” he said. “The best.”
Hannibal was never one to turn down local expertise, but he had most faith in his own people.
“Face, BA, you’re with them.” He looked at Abasi. “My trackers. The best as well.” Abasi nodded. “Rearguard please, sergeant.” Abasi saluted and went off to get in position.
“Murdock,” Hannibal said, “stick close to me and keep an eye on the trackers. Okay, let’s move out.”
And now it was really starting to get to Face. His feet were in Africa but his head was right back in the first jungle he’d ever gone into. And had believed he’d never come out of. The weight of his rifle on his back, the heat, always the heat, the humidity. And the bugs. He always forgot how bad the bugs were. All of it took him right back there.
A voice behind him not speaking English made his heart start to race and the word ‘Charlie’ leap into his mind. He had to take a deep breath and remind himself he was in Zaire, not Vietnam, and the foreign language he heard was French, and came from allies not enemies.
“You okay, Face?” BA asked, coming up beside Face. He had that same concerned look Murdock had that morning.
“Yeah, just concentrating.” He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. Over the clicking and whirring animal sounds he thought he could hear the choppers…
Jesus, Face prayed. Not here, not now, I’ve not had a flashback for ten years. I will not make a fool of myself in front of these men. I will not. He rubbed his forearm with his other hand, even scratched it a little with his nails. Physical sensations, he thought. Anchor my head in the present. He looked up, wanting to see the sky, see there were no helicopters, but the high, dripping green canopy obscured the blue.
“Drop back, Lieutenant.” BA said quietly.
“Huh?” Face looked at him startled. Then he got angry suddenly. He kept his voice quiet as per orders and it came out as a furious hiss.
“Since when do you give me orders, Sergeant?” And then he hated himself for speaking to his friend that way. BA didn’t rise to the tone and Face saw the genuine concern in his eyes.
“You need a break. Go get some water.” BA’s voice was quiet, no one but Face could hear him speak. Face’s anger drained away.
“Yeah, okay.” Face said. BA was smart. Smarter than him anyway. BA had work to do and he couldn’t keep an eye on Face and do his job at the same time. Face dropped back from point. Well he needed a drink of water anyway.
The trail was almost a mile, and not an easy mile though the thick undergrowth. But as last they came to the camp. It was in a clearing in a slight dip in the ground and they looked down into it spread out beneath them.
“Damn.” Hannibal whispered.
It was big. At least a dozen wooden barrack like buildings stood beneath the trees. They looked hastily constructed, poor quality workmanship. But each of them was big enough to house at least twenty men.
“He’s been recruiting.” Drummond said.
There was no fence around the base, so Hannibal knew that meant there had to be patrols. They couldn’t stand around here for long.
He checked the base with the binoculars. There were a lot of men. At least one hundred and fifty by his estimation. There were women there too, carrying around washing and baskets of food. Even a few small children ran around.
“He’s well set up here.” Hannibal muttered. He handed the glasses to the Brigadier, to see if he could spot Sefu.
“No, sorry.” Drummond said after a while. “But I’ll bet that building in the centre is his house.”
“Agreed,” Hannibal said, “Think that’s the armoury to the left of it?”
“The roof is tarred.” Drummond said. “Got to keep their powder dry. Yes, Colonel, I’d agree.”
Hannibal turned to Murdock, but he was already drawing out a sketch map of the camp on the pad they’d brought along for the purpose.
“Armoury.” Murdock said, writing it on.
They moved back once they’d got as much information down as they could and made their way back to their vehicles.
“He’s got a lot of men.” Hannibal said, in a musing voice, as they drove off. The team were sitting in the truck, with Drummond and Abasi and a few of the security men. The rest were in the jeeps.
“Maybe he’s got career ambitions.” Murdock suggested. “Planning on getting that promotion from bandit to warlord.”
“Very possibly.” Hannibal said. “And for that he needs weapons. And to get weapons he needs cash.”
“I wonder how many kids he has to sell to raise the price of a crate of M-16s?” Face asked. That silenced everyone for several minutes as they bumped off the jungle road onto the paved one and set out back towards the lodge.
“He’s got too many men for us.” Drummond said, after a while. “I’ve got a few more men, who usually only work during the tourist season. I can get them, will take a few days. But that still only brings my lads up to a strength of about thirty. The UN boys aren’t allowed to interfere.” He shook his head. “We’ve not got enough for an attack.”
“We’re used to being outnumbered.” Hannibal said.
“Not by this much.” Face said. Hannibal just rested his chin on his hands for a while, a thoughtful expression on his face.
We could just take out the top boy.” Drummond said, “he has to leave the camp sometime. We could grab him…”
“And there’s probably a half dozen guys waiting to take his place.” Hannibal said. “That would barely slow them down. We need to break up this operation for good and for that we need more men. More fighting men. Anyone got any clues where to find them?”
“Everywhere.” It was Abasi. He’d sat in silence as the officers talked, smoking his pungent smelling pipe. He put it down now as they all turned to him. “For many years there has been fighting. Many men have been soldiers. Every village.”
“Weapons?” Hannibal asked.
“Many. Most old and dirty. But rifles can be cleaned.”
“We’d need ammunition.” Face said.
“I’ve got a lot of ammunition.” Drummond said. “Just had a delivery. Various kinds, for my men.”
“And I’m sure Face can rustle us up some more.” Hannibal said, smiling. He was starting to look much happier. “You think we can persuade these men to join us, Sergeant?” He asked Abasi.
“To fight a man who steals our children?” Abasi said. He knocked the ashes out his pipe, didn’t say anything else.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Hannibal said. He glanced at Face who took his cue and produced a cigar.
“Fellas,” Hannibal said, settling back against the wall of the truck, puffing the cigar. “We’re going to raise an army.”
“And you knocked out six men, Brigadier?” Bennett asked.
“Might have been seven, my dear, lost count you know.”
They were just finishing dinner, during which they’d told Madari and his officers about what they’d discovered and what they had planned, and then spent the rest of the time listening to Drummond’s description of the bar fight. It seemed to have been the most fun he’d had in years.
Port was brought to the table and cigars were lit up. Murdock was cracking nuts, apparently just for the hell of it, he wasn’t eating any of them. Bennett didn’t seem to have heard of the tradition of the ladies retiring when the gentlemen moved on to port and cigars. She settled back with a glass of port herself and encouraged Drummond to describe the best bits of the fight again. She was smiling and Face wondered if she made him tell it enough times he would eventually have taken out a dozen men.
A young African woman who had been serving them finished clearing up and left. Face chivalrously jumped up to hold open the door for her. She glanced shyly at him and he smiled. When he came back to the table, the conversation seemed to have moved on to military method in general. Drummond had just stated that drill was the foundation all military discipline. Madari had agreed and, out of sheer contrariness, Face suspected, Hannibal had disagreed. It looked like being a long argument. A fog of smoke from the cigars already hung over the table.
Face felt the need for a little fresh air. He excused himself and left the room. He found a sitting room, that had a ceiling fan running and was deliciously cool. He lounged back on a sofa with a sigh.
He almost dozed off sitting there but was snapped out of it by the door opening. Bennett came in. She was out of uniform, wearing a white cotton shirt and black trousers that showed off her lithe figure very nicely.
“Oh, hi, Face,” she said, appearing to be surprised to find him here. Face had played that one often enough to know it was an act.
“Hi, Karen. Got tired of the military talk?”
“No, I don’t mind that stuff.” She laughed. “But the atmosphere was getting a bit thick with those cigars. Do you mind some company?”
“Of course not.” Face said and patted the seat beside him on the sofa. She came and sat down. “So how many men did the Brigadier take down in the fight at the last telling?”
She laughed again. “Oh, pretty much all of them, I reckon. Sounds like the rest of you were just the audience.”
Face laughed too.
“So, how many men did you take out?” She asked. Face at once had to resist the urge to inflate the figure.
“Two. Would have been more of course, but it was all over pretty quick.” She had just moved a little closer to him. Oh hell, Face thought. He was getting vibes from her and he really wanted to respond. But he couldn’t stop thinking about what he saw last night.
“I’ll bet you were great.” Bennett said. “You’ve got this smoothie front, but I think you’re really tough underneath. A real soldier boy.” She touched his arm, supposedly feeling his muscles for how tough he was. Supposedly. Then her hand slid across his chest and moved up to stroke his neck.
“Face.” Her voice was quiet, the slight harshness of her accent softened as she moved closer, leaned in and kissed him.
His reaction was instinctive, his arms went up and around her. It took a long moment for him to regain control. When he did he put his hands between them, on her arms, pushed her back.
“Karen, I’m sorry. I…” He groaned at the thought of what he was turning down, but a man had to have principles. Anyway Hannibal would kill him.
“What’s wrong?” She asked, surprised.
“It’s just, well, Colonel Madari is a friend of mine, I don’t want to… ” Bennett frowned at him looking baffled.
“What does the colonel have to do with it?” She asked, then smiled. “I think I only have to ask his permission if I want to get married. And you’re pretty fanciable, Face, but I wasn’t thinking of proposing just yet.”
“But aren’t you…you know, with…” Face stopped. Bennett wore a totally astonished expression. Oh hell, he thought, Murdock had been right. Face had taken a very firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick. Her eyes widened and then she laughed heartily.
“You thought I was shagging the colonel?” Face cringed a little and she laughed some more. “Where the hell did you get that idea from?”
“Um, last night, I saw you coming out of his room pretty late.” Face explained, feeling like an idiot.
“Oh, that. We were just talking.”
She shrugged. “I don’t think he sleeps well.”
“And don’t you sleep?” Face asked, starting to relax. She had moved away a little, now he just had to manoeuvre her close again. And if she liked guys who didn’t sleep he had a little insomnia for her right here.
“Yeah, but I like to talk to him. He’s an experienced officer, I’ve learnt a lot from him.”
“You’re obviously very dedicated to your career.” Face said. That could be the way to go with her, he thought. He inched closer. She was shaking her head, still chuckling.
“The colonel! He’s old enough to be my dad.”
Face decided not to mention that he and Madari were about the same age. He’d already nearly talked himself out of a good thing.
“Sorry, Karen, I got the wrong idea.” He put on his best contrite expression. Full puppy dog eyes
She smiled at him, then to his alarm she suddenly scowled and withdrew from him.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Is that how you think a woman officer gets on? By sleeping with her C.O.?”
“What? No, no, of course not.” Face said, a desperate edge to his voice as he felt the situation slipping away from him. I’m losing it, he thought. It’s all gone. The old Faceman he ain’t what he used to be.
“Dammit!” She stood up, “I keep thinking that one day I’ll meet one who’s different, but no, you blokes are all the same.” As Face stood up she stretched up to her full height, but she was only five six to his five eleven and this seemed to infuriate her even more. “This…” she patted her shoulder, then grimaced when she realised she didn’t have her uniform on, so had no shoulder boards to point to. “…my insignia means ‘lieutenant’ just the same as yours, you know.”
“You know, eh?” She looked at him for a moment. Face tried the contrite look again. “Naw.” She said eventually. “You don’t know. Right. I’m going to bed.” She turned, then turned back for a moment. “Alone!” Then she was gone slamming the door.
Face sat down with a groan. From now on he promised himself the only women in uniform he would go anywhere near would be nurses. Civilian nurses.