“Captain Jahni! Captain Jahni!” Jahni’s office clerk burst into one of the special forces unit’s training room, where Jahni and the men were practising hand to hand combat. Jahni, lying on the mat, leaned up as the man he was sparring with stepped away from him.
“What is it?”
“Sir!” The clerk actually ran onto the mats, in outdoor shoes, quite against the rules. “Sir, the telephone. Colonel Madari is on the telephone.” Jahni stared at him, and then saw the fear and urgency in the man’s eyes. He jumped to his feet. “He says he must talk to you, sir. He sounds… ill, sir.”
“Ill?” Jahni froze, the fear transferring itself to him. The paralysis lasted only a second, then he strode off the mat, out of the room, the clerk scurrying behind him. He couldn’t miss the worry on the faces of the men as he passed them.
“You have to hurry, Captain. He’s on a satellite phone and they could lose the signal any moment.”
He reached his office in record time, ignoring the disapproving looks as he ran through headquarters in his workout clothes, and found his phone off the hook, the handset lying on the desk. He grabbed that up.
“Hello?” Jahni snapped.
“Strewth, you’re there. Thought you weren’t coming.” A woman’s voice, speaking English. Must be Lieutenant Bennett, who Madari talked about in his letters. “Is that Captain Jahni?”
“Yes. Where’s the Colonel?”
“Hold on, passing you over now.”
Jahni gripped the handset tightly, waiting for Madari’s voice, When it came, it was weak and shaky.
“Kahil. It’s me. I’m all right now, but something happened…”
“Faris… you sound terrible.” They talked over each other, a tiny delay on the line because of the distance. “I’m sorry, go on. What happened?”
“I was poisoned. Me and Face.”
Jahni’s legs shook enough to make him grab for his chair and sit down. His chair he noticed, his desk and phone, not the one in Madari’s office that he’d been using for the last three months. Madari wanted him and called his number.
“Face? What? Templeton Peck?”
“The team’s here with me. I’ve written to you about that, you mustn’t have the letter yet. It’s a long story. But they’re here to defeat a man stealing local children.”
“Okay,” Jahni didn’t care about that right now. He’d get an explanation later. “Who poisoned you? Are you okay? Is Face okay?”
“We are both fine, Kahil, I swear to you.”
Was he really? My God, what if he’d called to say goodbye? What if the poison was killing him, both of them? Terror and rage blasted all rational thought from Jahni’s mind.
“I’m coming down there.”
“No, Kahil, there’s no need. We were very ill, but we’re both going to be fine. There’s absolutely no need for you to come down. I only called because I… I just needed to talk, to hear your voice.”
“Why do you need to hear my voice? Unless you think you won’t hear it again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m coming down there.”
“No you don’t need to. I mean it, Kahil. The team’s here. Hannibal is here. I’m quite safe, I swear to you, Kahil. Kahil, are you listening?”
Jahni was listening. Not to the words, but to how faded and weak the voice was. How like the old days, when he first met Madari and his voice had still not recovered from three weeks of screaming. A surge of protectiveness that he hadn’t felt as strongly since those days overwhelmed him.
“I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
“Kahil, you don’t… Kahil. Kahil.”
Jahni hung up, cutting him off. The clerk had arrived back now and stood in the doorway. Jahni stood, head whirling, trying to sort out the things he was supposed to do over the next few days from the things he now intended to do. Then he took a breath and spoke to the clerk.
“Call Colonel Rahama’s office. I need to speak to him urgently.” He glanced down at himself, his sweat-stained workout clothes. “I’ll be back here in twenty minutes.”
Jahni didn’t often see a look of such shock and horror on Rahama’s face. The old man was always so controlled and in charge of every situation.
“Him and Lieutenant Peck of the A-Team. Faris insists they are all right, but he sounded very… weak. Sir, I’m requesting emergency leave. I… I would like to go down there.” He’d wanted to go down there since he received Madari’s letter several weeks ago now about the dream, about what must have been a horrible night and about how much he’d needed Kahil there with him that night. Of course, he couldn’t go then. But this was different. He leaned over Rahama’s desk, pleading with the Colonel. “Please, sir, I need to… I know, the unit…”
“You’ve had no leave while Colonel Madari has been gone have you?”
“A day here and there.”
“Then you are due some. Thanks to the excellent training from you and Faris, your officers are quite capable of running the unit without you for a few days. I’ll assign a senior staff officer to supervise temporarily.”
Madari wouldn’t be pleased about that, Jahni knew, another senior officer horning in on his unit. But right now, Jahni didn’t care. He cared about only one thing – getting to Zaire.
“I sent him there,” Rahama said, running a hand through his hair. “The assassination attempt. The death threats. I wanted to get him away from them for a while. Somewhere safe, and now to learn that I almost sent him to his death…”
Jahni’s knees shook again at the thought and he sat, though moved to get up again at once, since Rahama hadn’t given him permission to sit. But Rahama waved a hand to tell him to stay seated. Jahni did, gripped his hands together below the level of Rahama’s desk so his commander couldn’t see them shaking. Madari had only said he and Face had been “very ill”. Knowing that he’d try to spare Jahni too much worry, to put him off rushing down there, Jahni felt sure ‘very ill’ meant ‘seconds from death.’
“I quite understand your feelings, Captain,” Rahama said, regaining some control, but his voice taking on a hard edge now, his face flushed. “You want to be at his side. You want to punish whoever did this. If I could, I’d come with you. But you understand why I can’t.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Anyway, I’d slow you down.” He drummed his fingers on the desk. “You’re not on leave, Captain. I’m assigning you to go and find out what’s happened to him, and ensure his safety.”
“Go and advise your officers you’ll be away and put whoever you deem best in charge. Tell him to report direct to me until I second someone to supervise. Then go home and pack and go to the airport. Report to the information desk when you get there, I’ll have made arrangements for you. Dismiss.”
“Sir.” Jahni saluted and turned to go.
“Kahil.” He turned back for a moment. Rahama was smiling grimly. “Don’t forget to take your helicopter licence.”
Between the doctor, the A-Team, Drummond, Bennett and Ritchie, Madari hadn’t been left alone since they got back to the lodge after the battle and the execution. Left alone with Jahni that is. He’d spent a couple of nights in the infirmary when they returned, along with Face, before the doctor finally released them to recuperate in their own rooms.
But now, at last, Jahni watched one of the lodge staff take away Madari’s lunch tray and leave the two of them alone together. He held the door for the woman, and then closed it behind her. He’d have liked to have locked it too, but the lock was still broken where it had been barged in.
Madari looked up at him from where he sat on the sofa, wearing pyjamas and a warm dressing gown. Though he smiled, it was a wan effort, still so pale and gaunt, though he was starting to eat better now.
“We should talk, Faris.”
Jahni had babbled things at him, his shock and relief, on that battlefield, not even sure Madari could hear him properly. Some of the things had been… inappropriate. And yet he couldn’t regret them.
“What do you want to say, Kahil?”
“That I… haven’t been that afraid in a long time.” An even longer time since he’d admitted to fear. “The journey here, not knowing for sure if you were dying. Coming here, finding you gone. Crashing in that helicopter and fearing I’d never see you. Never know…”
Madari stood up and came over to him. “I’m sorry that you went through that.”
Jahni laughed bitterly. “No, I’m sorry! You’re the one who was poisoned, almost died. And I’m whining about how scared I was.”
“It’s all right. I understand what you’re saying to me. And, Kahil, even if we’d both died, we’d have found each other.”
Jahni looked away, grimacing. “You know what I think of that.”
“I know.” Madari put a hand on his shoulder. After a moment, Jahni looked at him again, his pale face, eyes seeming deeper and darker than usual.
“Colonel Rahama has shown a lot of confidence in me,” Jahni said. Madari blinked at the sudden change of subject, but then smiled.
“That’s good. I knew you would do well.”
“It… reminded me of how important my career is to me. And yours. He talks about you so often, what a fine officer you are. How you could lead the regiment one day.”
“He flatters me,” Madari said, bowing his head, but looking puzzled at Jahni’s words, obviously not understanding why he was talking about this now.
“Before you went away I was acting in an unacceptable way. I realise that.”
“You were… confused, Kahil.” Madari took his hand from Jahni’s shoulder and turned away from him, walked to the window. After a moment, Jahni joined him and stood at his side.
“I think we were both confused,” Jahni said. “In fact, all three of us.”
Madari looked at him, frowning. “All three?”
“I don’t think Sophia wants you to marry her.”
“What?” Madari stared at him, shocked.
“I think that’s why she stayed away in Italy for so long. Because she was afraid that you’d propose to her when she came back.”
“I see.” Madari looked out of the window again. It was raining steadily out there. Jahni hadn’t seen so much rain since his training in Britain. “I might have.” Madari said it quietly and gave Jahni a soft smile when Jahni turned to stare at him. “Yes. I might very well have. I got it into my head that not to propose to her would be an insult. I… I don’t want to marry her, Kahil. She’s a fine woman, but you know I don’t love her. Your behaviour… the temptation you were putting in my way, well, you reminded me that to marry her would be a mistake.”
Jahni ran a hand through his hair and groaned. “That was my plan. If you can call it a plan. To… remind you why you couldn’t marry her. I’m sorry. I teased you, led you on.”
“If I didn’t have these feelings then your ‘plan’ couldn’t have worked. So…” he shrugged. “All’s fair in love and war.”
“It won’t happen again after you come back. I’ve come to my senses. I promise that.”
“As long as I don’t ask Sophia to marry me.”
Jahni winced, though there was some teasing in Madari’s tone. “I’m not trying to force you to do anything. Or not to do something. If you were to marry her…”
“I’m not going to.”
Jahni rubbed his hands over his face. He hoped not. He couldn’t speak for what he’d do then. If just the prospect of him had made him act so foolishly, what heights of idiocy could he reach if it became a reality?
“Well, anyway,” Jahni said, “I just wanted you to know that when you come home, things will be normal between us again. I mean… proper. Appropriate.”
“Ah, that… that’s… good.” Madari’s voice shook slightly and he turned to look out into the rain again. Jahni took a deep breath and put his hand on Madari’s shoulder, making him turn to look at Jahni again.
“Do you hear what I’m saying, Faris?”
“Of course, and you’re quite right -”
“No. Do you hear the exact words? I said ‘When you come home.'”
Madari’s eyes widened, and gave a small gasp of surprise understanding dawned. That was too much temptation for Jahni. He took Madari’s hand and moved them both away from the window. Away from prying eyes. he gave in to the desire he’d felt from the moment he’d seen Madari again, safe, alive.
Jahni kissed him.
Receiving no immediate protest, Jahni deepened the kiss. He raised his hand to touch Madari’s face, his fingers stroking the bristles of the new beard. He’d seen Madari with a beard before, but had never kissed him while he had one. It felt… different, rather strange, but not strange enough to want to stop.
Madari made them stop, though it took him a good minute to do so, Jahni estimated. He pushed Jahni back gently.
“Kahil, you know we can’t.”
“We’re here. In this place, we can. Only while we’re here.”
“You’re suggesting it… doesn’t count?”
“I’m suggesting we let ourselves dream for a while.”
“It isn’t a dream,” Madari said, shaking his head. “I can’t pretend that it is. I’m sorry.”
“Faris, please!” Desperation gripped Jahni. He put a hand on Madari’s chest, on the left, over his heart. “You almost died. I almost died.”
“I’ve almost died before, and so have you.”
“It’s been a long time since either of us were so close to it. I… I talked to Murdock. He told me how close you came. How he thought they’d lose you and Face. How much he feared having to come to tell me you were dead.” He choked off, voice cracking. “And he said that when you woke up, you were calling for me. So please, let me have this, before I go home, before you come back and everything is normal again. Let me have this!”
Madari stared at him through this outburst, and Jahni had to look away, fearing his pleading would disgust the man he called not only friend, but commander. But Madari reached out and turned Jahni’s face back towards his. He wore a soft smile now.
“Perhaps… I can pretend after all.”
Only here. Only now. Only a dream. They kissed again, and didn’t stop this time. Jahni slid his arms around Madari’s waist, under the dressing gown and they pressed close together. Madari’s hands slid up Jahni’s arms and then around his neck. It seemed to go on forever and then stop too soon as Madari pulled back abruptly.
Jahni sighed and opened his eyes, fearing the end of the moment so soon. But then he saw how pale Madari looked and felt how heavily Madari was leaning on him.
“Faris! Are you okay?”
“I’m just… still very tired,” Madari said, voice faded and whispery again.
At once Jahni grabbed his arm and steered him through to the bedroom. He helped Madari sit on the bed, shuck off the slippers he wore, and lie down. A thick blanket lay folded at the bottom of the bed and Jahni shook that out while Madari struggled out of the dressing gown, then laid the blanket over him. He took the dressing gown and hung it on a hook on the inside of the bedroom door, before turned back to Madari, feeling a twinge of guilt.
“I’m sorry. You’re still ill, I shouldn’t have…”
“Come and sit by me.”
Jahni glanced at a chair by the window that he could pull over to the bed, but Madari was resting a hand on the covers beside him, his invitation quite clear. Jahni glanced back into the sitting room, again wishing the door to the corridor was locked, but then closed the bedroom door and came to the bed. He sat down with one leg crossed over his knee, the other foot on the floor. Madari moved closer, leaned against him and Jahni put an arm around him, started to relax against the headboard.
“Why don’t you take off your shoes?” Madari said.
And Jahni knew then that the moment wasn’t over. Madari had taken him up on the challenge to dare to dream. And he wasn’t done dreaming yet. Jahni had to sit up on the edge of the bed, to undo his shoelaces, and take off his shoes, and socks. When he swung his legs up onto the bed, Madari saw his bare feet and smiled.
“You’ll be cold. Come here.” He held up the blanket. Another invitation.
Jahni hesitated only a moment. They’d lain on a bed in each other’s arm’s many times, when he comforted Madari after his nightmares. This was like that. Well, nearly. Anyway, he’d started this. He should finish it. He got right onto the bed, reclining against the pillows and Madari draped the blanket over him so it covered them both.
Madari reached up to stroke his hand through Jahni’s hair and pull him close until their lips met again. No the moment, the dream wasn’t over.
There was no prospect of sex, Jahni realised after a few minutes. The kisses stayed gentle and slow. Passion and intensity hid in them, but never surfaced. Madari was simply too weak and ill. Even if either of them had wanted it, Madari didn’t have the strength for it.
After a while even the kisses left him tired out and they lay together, Madari’s head on Jahni’s chest, arms around him, while Jahni stroked his hair. The rain continued outside, the rhythmic sound of it quite soothing, lulling both of them.
It felt so good to lie together like this that Jahni cursed the world for making it forbidden for them. Why did the world keep them from making a life together? Why make this a sin? A crime? Who did they hurt by spending an afternoon in each other’s arms?
His mind wandered, imagining them not here, but at his flat, or Madari’s house, or some other new house. Imagined them living there together, waking together every morning, sharing meals. Making love. That would happen eventually, if they had such a life. They’d have time to work on getting over Jahni’s doubts. How could he want something and not want it at the same time? No wonder this was so difficult. But for a while, he dreamt of it being simple.
“Kahil,” Madari said softly.
“I think this counts. I think it’s too important not to count.”
“I think so too.”
“But it still can’t happen after I come home.”
“I’m going to write to Sophia, tell her I want things to go on just as before. If she doesn’t want that she should write and tell me. Then there doesn’t have to be any kind of… scene when I come home. She’ll be the one who dropped me. That’s best all around.”
Jahni bit his lip. “Just as before?”
“I don’t think there’s a reason to change. I think there are plenty of reasons not to change in fact. She… she helps me stay strong, Kahil. In a different way than you do. She helps me resist this sin that would destroy both of us.”
“I see. This… sin.” He glanced down at the two of them, their bodies still close, legs wrapped together under the blanket.
“I’m weak today, I know that. Perhaps because I’ve been away from her and you for so long. But when I come home, I need to be strong again. We both need to.”
“I’ll be strong.” Jahni made it a promise. He’d be strong. For his own career and Madari’s. For the unit and the regiment. For Rahama and the king. For all of that he’d swallow down this desire again and only let himself dream of this afternoon when he lay alone in his bed. “I’ll be strong.”
The bleak prospect of using his strength to make himself lonely almost sent him to despair. So he tried to smile, to cheer them both up, not ready to end this precious time in sadness.
“Have you been strong while you’ve been here?” Jahni asked.
Madari looked up at him. “Of course. What are you suggesting?” He put on a stern expression, teasing.
“Well, Karen is quite attractive.”
“And under my command.”
“Um, Faris, so am I.”
“Ah, yes, good point. Karen is… very nice, but I don’t think we’d be compatible romantically.”
“Okay, forget Karen. You still haven’t explained what Face was doing in your room so late at night.”
“Kahil!” Madari sounded genuinely shocked now. “Face and I are certainly not romantically compatible.”
“He’s a handsome man.”
“He’s not my type.”
Jahni chuckled. “Well anyway, he’s a little too busy with Karen isn’t he?”
“What?” Madari stared.
“Face and Karen. You didn’t notice?”
“No. They’re… involved?”
“I suppose you haven’t been getting out much lately. They’re not advertising it, but it’s obvious enough.”
“She’s rather young for him.”
“He’s the Faceman,” Jahni said, grinning, making Madari roll his eyes but then frown.
“He’d better not break her heart.”
The edge of a fierce tone in Madari’s voice made Jahni smile. Madari might have no romantic feelings for Bennett, but his affection for her was clear in the protectiveness he displayed, even while lying here too weak to take on a small kitten in defence of her honour. He hugged Madari close again, and Madari rested his head on Jahni’s shoulder. A moment later his eyes closed and he was asleep.
Remarkable to see that. He never fell asleep so easily. That just reminded Jahni how weak he still was, and why. So he held Madari tight and tried to suppress the fear and anger with more daydreams about the two of them sharing their lives.
After an hour lying there, dreaming and listening to the rain and to Madari’s breathing, Jahni slipped carefully away from him. Madari stirred but didn’t wake, just cuddled against the pillows, still wrapped in the blanket. Jahni wanted to brush aside the hair that had fallen over his forehead, but feared waking him. Madari was under doctor’s orders to rest after all.
He left the bedroom, keeping the door ajar, so he could see the bed, and walked into the sitting room, stretching his arms above his head and then combing his hair down with his hands. Some tea would go down well about now, he decided and set up the kettle on the stove. The bashed up ibrik stood on the bench beside the tea things and Jahni winced at the sight of it, as someone might at the sight of blood-stained knife. Murder weapon, he thought. Or close to it anyway.
He was looking for a cup in the cupboard below the bench when someone tapped at the door and Jahni hurried there in case they knocked louder and disturbed Madari. He opened the unlocked door to find Bennett standing there.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “I was just looking for the Colonel.”
“He’s resting,” Jahni said, his voice hushed. She responded to that, spoke quietly herself.
“Ah, good. That’s what I wanted to check. Make sure he’s not interpreting ‘resting’ as ‘catching up on his paperwork’.”
Jahni had to smile at that. “I see you’ve got to know him quite well then, Lieutenant.” He beckoned her into the room and led her to the bedroom door to look in and see that Madari was indeed sleeping, as per doctor’s orders. The pleased look on her face when she saw that endeared her to him, her affection for and protectiveness of Madari quite clear. He might be without his usual guardian down here, but he may have found another, albeit unlikely, one. Jahni remembered Madari’s letter, about how she’d helped him that night he had the nightmare.
“I was just making some tea,” he said, closing the bedroom door. “Would you like to join me?”
“Great, thanks,” she said and he gestured to the sofa to indicate she should sit while he waited on her. A strange way of doing it to be sure, but he didn’t mind this time.
“The Colonel talks about you a lot,” Bennett said, when he gave her a cup of tea and sat with his own across the coffee table from her. “He says you’re the best soldier in the Royal Guard.” She winked at him. “He’s your biggest fan.”
Jahni felt sure he blushed. Between the wink and the flattery. “I, ah, try to do my best for the Colonel. He’s the best commander I ever served with.”
She sipped her tea and nodded. “I feel like I’m lucky to have these few months with him. I’ve learnt so much from him. Wish he was Australian, so I could transfer to be permanently under his command.”
“Really?” He smiled. “I did that actually. Transferred to the Royal Guard to stay with him.”
“Yeah, he told me about that. Your whole guerilla campaign and everything. Should write a book about it one day, I told him.”
“I don’t think so,” Jahni said. Even when there was glory there, some things should be left in the past.
“He said that too,” she said, with a shrug. Obviously, Faris had spared her some of the nastier details of that time. Only proper, she shouldn’t hear such things. Although… He looked at her again, the steady eyes and steady hands. She met his gaze unabashed, unlike most of the women he knew. Even educated, confident women, like Amina from the party.
Amina who he’d called to invite to dinner and who told him she actually had a man friend in Paris, that her great-aunt didn’t know about of course. It had been a ridiculous idea anyway. Looking for his own Sophia-minus-fifteen-years.
Bennett was different even from women like Amina. She met his gaze because nobody had ever taught her it was forbidden to do so.
“Karen, what you did… leading that firing squad. I have to say, that impressed me.”
Her smile disappeared. “I didn’t agree with it happening, but I wanted to make sure it was done properly all the same.”
“That man didn’t deserve mercy.”
“I wasn’t thinking about what he deserved.”
Jahni drank some of his tea, still assessing her. He tried to imagine her like one of the soldiers in his unit, assessing her strengths and weaknesses. Would he take her on a mission? Well, she didn’t have the right kind of training of course. But if she did have? Could a woman even pass that type of training?
“Were you trying to prove something?” he asked her.
“Captain, I’ve been trying to prove something since the day I joined the Army.”
Jahni grimaced at that, actually understanding the feeling. He’d been trying to prove himself Royal Guard material since the day he transferred. Many of his fellow Royal Guard officers still saw him as an outsider. And of course the last three months, he’d been trying to prove he could command the unit.
“I should apologise to you for what I said about your not understanding about guns.”
“Oh, thanks. That’s okay.”
“I’ve thought about it and there’s no reason why a woman couldn’t do as well on target shooting at least.”
“Of course, combat is a different thing.”
“Damn!” She snapped her fingers, shaking her head. “And you were doing so well.”
He raised his eyebrows at that. “What?”
She shook her head. “Never mind. I don’t think anything’s going to change your mind.”
“Look, it’s obvious,” he said, irritated. “A woman isn’t as strong as a man, she has less stamina, she can’t run as fast. She can never be as good as soldier as a man.”
“She could be better at some things, like with guns. What are you rated in rifle?”
“Sharpshooter, but that’s…”
“Me too, see?”
“That’s not the point,” Jahni said, suddenly determined to bring his rifle rating up.
“Of course it’s the point!”
“Well, it’s very nice to see you two getting along so famously.”
They both turned to see Madari standing at the bedroom door in his dressing gown, smiling and shaking his head. Jahni winced and saw Bennett do the same. They both got up.
“I’m sorry, sir, we didn’t mean to wake you,” Bennett said. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, thank you.”
“Well, I’d better go,” she said. “Let you rest. See you at dinner, sir, Kahil.” She turned to him, her smile still friendly, despite their disagreement. Though for a moment she got an odd expression on her face, puzzled, thoughtful and she looked over at Madari and then back at him, before pulling herself together. “Ah, right. Bye now.”
She left the room and Madari flopped onto the sofa she’d vacated.
“I’d really like some tea,” Madari said.
Jahni looked away from the door, from watching Bennett leave, wondering about that puzzled look. “What?”
“Tea. Could you make me some?”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
He busied himself making a fresh pot of tea for the two of them and brought it over to the table.
“Thank you.” Madari looked up at him with a grateful smile. He touched Jahni’s arm and for a moment, Jahni thought it was a caress, as his hand stroked along the forearm. But Madari smiled and said, “You’ll have to change for dinner. Our… um… earlier has left you quite… rumpled.”
Rumpled? Jahni looked down at himself, at the horizontal creases in his clothes and thought of that strange look Bennett had given him.
The yard at the front of the lodge was bustling with activity, as men loaded one of the Brigadier’s small trucks with the A-Team’s gear. Jahni barely had any gear. Nothing but his backpack, which he had slung over his shoulder now, as he watched the loading, standing with Madari and the team.
So soon now they’d be leaving. He could have gone sooner, but had convinced himself he should wait with the team until Face was strong enough to travel. Easier for them to travel together he argued. Nobody disputed it.
As Madari grew stronger too, just like Face, they’d grown more cautious, stopped snuggling under a blanket in the afternoons, afraid their feelings would get out of control. But an hour ago they’d said a private goodbye, with kisses, and whispered words. For the last time. It can’t happen when I come home, Madari said again.
And then he’d surprised Jahni as they were about to leave his suite, handing him a white envelope with Sophia’s name on it. The letter he said he’d write, telling her that he wanted to go on as before.
“Would you give this to her?” Madari asked, holding out the envelope. “I think it stands a better chance of getting there that way.” When Jahni hesitated, he frowned and started to take it back. “If you’d prefer not to… I’d understand. I’m sorry. This is tactless of me. Of course you don’t want to…”
Jahni almost grabbed the letter from his hand. He didn’t want Madari to think he was petty. “Of course I’ll take it,” he said, with a forced smile. “I’ll have to go and see her and give her a full report anyway.” He put it into a side pocket of his backpack. “We’d better go downstairs.”
They went outside and then it was a mob scene, with the team, Bennett, Ritchie, Elimu, the Brigadier. Even the little girl, Kibibi, who seemed to be especially fond of Face. Ladies of every age loved that man.
The goodbyes went on for a long time before the team and Jahni climbed into the truck that was taking them to an airstrip, where they’d take a small plane to Kinshasa. Where Jahni would have some awkward explaining to do at the rental agency, about where he’d left the remains of their helicopter.
He still carried his backpack on his shoulder, looking behind him as he climbed aboard the truck, looking at Madari. His lover. Not his lover. Can never be. Carrying a letter to the woman who was Madari’s lover in the sense the rest of the world understood the word.
A hand taking his made him turn to find Murdock helping him aboard, smiling at him. Jahni smiled back and in a moment was sitting on a bench beside Murdock as the drivers climbed into the cab, doors slamming. Hannibal lit up a cigar, Face complained about how uncomfortable their journey would surely be, BA just growled at the smoke and the complaints and settled down.
The truck bumped off out of the yard, those left behind waving, a couple of dogs barking, children chasing it to the gate and a few of the more adventurous ones, running for a short distance down the road, before stopping when the truck was too far away and instead jumping and waving, splashing on the muddy road, before turning to run back in the gate.
“They know how to give you a send off around here,” Hannibal said, chuckling. “Only missing fireworks and streamers. Okay, guys, it’ll take hours to get to the airstrip. I’m getting some sleep.”
In a few minutes Jahni was the only man awake on the truck. He sat near the back, leaning on the half height door, the wind blowing his hair in his eyes until he put on his sunglasses. Glancing at the others, asleep, or at least with their eyes closed, he bent down and unzipped the side pocket of his backpack and took out the letter to Sophia.
When he sat up, it fluttered in the strong breeze. How easy it would be to let it go. Let the wind whip it away. The rain would wash it away to oblivion soon enough. Or it would fall on the muddy road and be crushed under tyres or feet. Gone.
She would never read it and perhaps she would think Madari had broken up with her by the old trusted method of cutting all contact without explanation. Getting no reply from her, he’d assume she was doing the same. He wouldn’t even call her or go to see her when he got home. Too proud and proper for that.
And if he did? Or she called him? Then he’d know Jahni had… committed an act of sabotage. Jahni could claim he lost the letter, entirely by accident, and perhaps Madari would pretend he believed that. But he wouldn’t believe it. Not really.
Jahni had taken the letter because he didn’t want Madari to think he was petty, even though he thought it… insensitive of Madari to ask him to deliver a letter to his rival. But perhaps he was petty, because as much as he tried to picture himself handing this to her, or even pushing it into her mail box he couldn’t see it happening.
Then he had to do something. Something else, before he did the thing he really wanted to do, let the letter go to fly away. He rummaged in his backpack and found a pen, which he used to write Sophia’s address on the envelope. No doubt she’d be puzzled by seeing her name in Madari’s hand and the address in Jahni’s – assuming she would recognise his.
Glancing around, he saw Murdock had his eyes half open, peeking out from under a red baseball cap. He smiled sleepily at Jahni.
“Murdock, would you please do something for me?”
Murdock sat up straight now, pushing the cap back on his head. “Sure.”
Jahni handed him the letter. “Would you please take this and when we get to Kinshasa, would you put a stamp on it and post it?”
Murdock looked at him oddly, and then looked quite baffled when he saw the Az-Ma’ir address. Jahni smiled weakly, feeling the need to give an explanation, despite Murdock not demanding one. “I just think that this way it has more chance of reaching its destination.”
Murdock looked at the envelope again, the address in the city Jahni was heading to. Did the name mean anything to him? But he didn’t question Jahni’s request, just put the envelope into his pocket.
“No problem.” He moved a little closer to Jahni, spoke quietly. “You can call me any time, Kahil. Day or night, doesn’t matter.”
Jahni stared at him for a moment. Murdock went on, a serious look on his face. “You’re in a high stress job. Feels good to talk about it.” He smiled and nodded at his snoozing team-mates. “I’ve got a heavy case-load already, keeping those three sane. But I can always squeeze you in.”
“I know you’ve usually got Faris to talk to of course. But sometimes…” He looked away again, at the team before turning back to Jahni. “Well, if it’s him you want to talk about, it’s good to have an alternative.”
Could Murdock suspect something? Surely not. He’d hardly encourage calls from Jahni if he did, would he? Quite the opposite in fact, Jahni would think. No. Murdock knew the pressures of Army life, and even the pressures of Special Forces soldiering, even if that was at second hand. The team would all trust Murdock with those times they needed to talk. Talk to a friend, not a counsellor.
“Thanks, Murdock. I’ll call.”
Jahni could trust him too.
Madari lingered in the yard after the truck left. The children who had chased it came back and Eshe scolded them for their muddy shoes. Bennett and Ritchie went back inside, work to do in the offices. Elimu returned to his infirmary. The Brigadier marched off to some errand and the rest of the spectators drifted off. But Madari still lingered.
He was starting to regret giving Jahni that letter. Was he so mean that he’d be that tactless, just to save the price of a stamp? No, that wasn’t it. The mail in this country was bad. The letter would reach her carried by Jahni.
Of course it would. Did he think Jahni wouldn’t give it to her? Jahni was a man, not a sulky child. Of course he’d hand over the letter.
A movement at his side made him look down to see Kibibi at his side. When he looked down she slipped her hand into his. He smiled, unsure what the child could want from him. His smile seemed to be enough for now.
Kibibi faced an uncertain future. Drummond, always a man of action, had sent some of his men to check villages close to Kizi, to seek out relatives of the surviving children. For those who had none, the future was likely to be an orphanage. But for now Kibibi and the other children stayed here, filling the house with their voices. Madari had spent little time around children, but it wasn’t unpleasant.
“Come away, child,” Eshe’s voice came across the yard. “Stop bothering the Colonel.”
She only clung tighter to his hand, and Madari felt touched at her confidence in his protection.
The protection of Mr Blue Hat.