Part 25: Proving Ground

Chapter 1

November 1992

The fasten seatbelts sign began to flash and Madari slipped the files he’d been reading into his briefcase, before stowing it for the landing in Kinshasa.

The files were those of his officer for his UN mission. One local man, the doctor, Captain Paul Elimu and two Australians, First-Lieutenant Geoffrey Ritchie and – the one he kept coming back to – Second-Lieutenant Karen Bennett.

A woman officer. Now that was something new to him. Other countries had them, he knew that, had even met some. Even other parts of the Army in his own country had them. But not the Royal Guard.

Ahmed would turn in his grave at the mere idea.

Of course, Madari was more modern and liberal than Ahmed had been. He believed women had their place in a modern Army in the medical corps and other support functions. But commanding men? Would a soldier listen to a woman, even if she outranked him?

He’d find out when he met Lieutenant Karen Bennett.

He met her at the airport, waiting at Arrivals, with his name on a piece of card. He’d travelled in civilian clothes, so she couldn’t pick him out the way he picked her out – by her uniform. She needn’t have bothered with the card though. A young white woman in uniform, with the pale blue UN beret stood out among the crowds of local people. He strode up to her, hauling along his trunk on its wheels, and produced his ID.

“Lieutenant Bennett? I’m Colonel Madari.”

She sprang to attention and saluted him, before offering him her hand and a smile.

“Hello, Colonel. Was your flight okay? I’ve got a porter here for your kit.”

A huge African man stood behind her and she gave him an order in French. Ignoring its wheels, the porter heaved the trunk onto his back and strode off, Madari and Bennett following.

“Can I carry your flight bag or briefcase for you, sir?” she asked.

“No, thank you, Lieutenant. Report on status please.”

“Mr Ritchie and I arrived yesterday. Doctor Elimu arrived earlier today. And the men will come in tomorrow by air, on a troop plane. Picks us up and heads out to the nearest airstrip to our base. That’s scheduled to arrive tomorrow morning, at ten.”

“Excellent. And when we arrive at the airstrip?”

“I’ve been promised our transport will be waiting for us. Our UN Land Rovers and a couple of hired trucks for the boys.” She grimaced. “I’m not worried about the Landies, I’m told they’re already there. It’s the trucks I’ll bet don’t arrive.”

Rain poured down outside, but Bennett had a taxi waiting and hustled Madari into it. The porter loaded Madari’s trunk into the boot of the car and Bennett paid him off before jumping into the back of the taxi with Madari.

“Grand Hotel,” she told the driver.

“How’s the hotel?” Madari asked. She grimaced again.

“Well, if it was in Sydney, I wouldn’t stay there, but it’s about as good as we’re going to get around here. I just hope the headquarters we’re staying in are better.”

“I’m assured that the safari lodge has excellent accommodation.”

“Fingers crossed,” she said.

Madari watched the city for a while and then glanced back at Bennett as she sighed and fanned herself with a magazine.

“It’s very hot,” he remarked. And thought he sounded like an idiot, stating the obvious.

“It’s the humidity though,” she said. “I can cope with the heat, I’m from the Outback. But this bloody humidity. Ah, sorry, sir.”

He smiled and nodded to excuse her.

“So, you’re from the desert too, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir.” She looked out at the rain. “About now, I’m wishing I was back there.”

Madari nodded, looking out there too. Only a few hours ago he’d said goodbye to Kahil at his own airport, asking him to please visit Sophia when she came home. She was coming back a short time after he left.

When she told him that… well, he had to wonder. He’d been so nervous of the changes her husband’s death would bring to their relationship that he’d volunteered for this mission and run off to Africa. Only in the last few days had it occurred to him to think that she might be delaying her return from Italy for the same reason. Did she fear he’d be waiting for her at the airport ready to propose marriage? He’d assumed that she must want marriage, assumed that’s what all women wanted. But what if he’d been wrong? He glanced over at Bennett. Running away from one woman he didn’t know how to deal with had brought him to another.

He frowned when she took off her beret to brush rainwater from the top of it, shaking her head at how much she’d been rained on just in the brief time between the airport doors and the taxi.

He frowned because Lieutenant Ritchie, who was to be his second in command, should have come to the airport himself to meet his commanding officer. Did he prefer to send Bennett so he could stay in the dry? Perhaps Mr Ritchie needed some lessons in military protocol?


The plane with the troops from Cameroon arrived almost on time. Madari and his officers were at the airport to meet it, but not to board yet. He’d decided the men deserved a break after their flight.

Madari introduced himself to the sergeant in charge of the group – Sergeant Bekono and ordered Lieutenant Ritchie to take the men to the transit area of the airport and see that they got a hot meal. After that he should join the officers for lunch.

“Thank you, sir,” Bekono said, to Madari. “It’s been a long flight, the men are glad to get off the plane.”

“Don’t lose any of them,” Madari told him. “And keep them out of the bar. I don’t want to delay our take-off.”

The sergeant went to join his men and Madari watched the group split up into the various cafés and fast food outlets.

“Look like an invasion force,” Bennett said with a smile. The airport security guards had looked quite nervous for a moment, when twenty soldiers had marched into the terminal, Madari had noticed. Of course their guns were still on the plane… which reminded him.

“Bennett, see to it that food is sent out to the men guarding the plane.”

“Right, sir. I’ll go sort that and join you in a few minutes.” She hurried off.

That left only him and Dr Elimu, a quiet and very polite local man, who had studied to be a doctor in London before starting to work for the United Nations, and eventually volunteering for this mission here in his homeland.

“Doctor, shall we get our lunch now? The lieutenants will join us soon.”

Madari and Elimu secured a table for four in one of the terminal’s restaurants, and chatted about London for a few minutes until Ritchie and Bennett arrived and they ordered.

The meal was adequate, no more, but Madari made sure to eat well. Who knows how long the rest of their journey would be? If their trucks were waiting as arranged, then they could arrive at the lodge in the early evening. If not… Well, he’d deal with that if it happened.

After lunch they sat with coffee for a while, and he noticed Bennett gazing out of the window of the restaurant. A family, local people, sat out there, waiting for some no doubt late flight. The children looked tired, but also… thin and frail. Madari sighed and knew they’d certainly see thinner children in their time here. Those ones were about to get on a plane. They were obviously among the better off. He cleared his throat and brought the attention of the three junior officers to him.

“Captain, Lieutenants. I want to remind you, before we leave, that we have a specific job to do here. I don’t have to tell you that this is a poor country. The people have many problems. And though we can help some of those people, we can’t help all of them. We aren’t here to feed these people, or school them, or free them. Our authority and power is limited.”

He looked around at them. Elimu watched him steadily, from behind his glasses. Bennett looked down into her coffee. Ritchie… looked almost embarrassed. Well, I’m making a speech, Madari thought. But, this has to be said, before they make themselves miserable trying to fix what they don’t have the power to fix.

“I know how hard it is to watch the innocent and helpless suffer and I’m sure you are all people who would do everything you can to help them. But we aren’t here to save this whole country. We will do our small part in trying to make things better.”

They were silent for a moment after he finished speaking. Then Bennett spoke in a serious voice. “Thank you, sir. Good advice.”

Elimu nodded too. He probably didn’t need the advice, Madari thought, being a local man. He’s been brought up living with the suffering. On the other hand, if he’d gone to study to become a doctor, he may be from a privileged family. And young doctors had a tendency to want to save everyone. Bennett and Ritchie certainly needed the advice though. Even the poor in Australia would seem rich to many people here. The two young officers had almost certainly not seen daily misery on this scale before. Madari checked his watch. Coming up to their take-off slot.

“Now, it’s time to catch our plane.”

They rounded up the men and – after making certain all of the their luggage was loaded – Madari and his officers and men boarded the plane. It had rows of seats like a commercial airliner, but was considerably more cramped and basic.

They made their take-off, delayed by only a few minutes. Madari saw everyone settled, and spoke briefly to the pilots, before he settled too, to snooze for the journey. As he’d walked back to his seat he’d seen about half the men doing the same. An experienced soldier knows he should always sleep when he has the opportunity. He never knows when he’ll get another chance.

Or she, he thought to himself, as he drifted off into a doze, hearing Bennett and Ritchie talking quietly in the seats behind him. He wondered what they thought of their commanding officer…


“Sir?” Elimu’s soft voice woke Madari. “Sir? We’re coming in to land. You need to put your seatbelt on.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” He sat up straight, and fastened the seatbelt. A glance at his watch told him four hours had passed. “Any problems?”

“No, sir,” Elimu said. “We’d have woken you. I think most of the men followed your example and took some rest. It’s been very quiet.”

The plane’s descent was obvious now and Madari looked out of the window to see the dark green land below them growing steadily closer.

“We could be up very late tonight,” Madari said. “Our journey on from here may not be easy.”

Elimu grimaced. “I should be amazed if it was anything close to easy, sir.”

The plane landed with a thump that caused some muttering even among the soldiers and a muffled “bloody hell” from Ritchie. Small planes. Madari hated small planes. Anything smaller than a 737 counted as small. And helicopters! Well, he’d become used to them, with his work, but that didn’t mean he had to like them. So far he hadn’t even been up in a helicopter with Kahil at the controls. But Kahil would qualify soon and would surely want to take him for a spin.

As the plane taxied to the airstrip’s buildings, Bennett took her seatbelt off and peered out of the window.

“I see our Landies, but I don’t see those trucks.”

The Land Rovers were hard to miss, even in the twilight. High, long and white, they stood out on the tarmac beside the building like a couple of beached whales. But Bennett was right that there was no sign of trucks. Madari hoped they were just around the other side of the building.

The plane stopped and Madari stood and turned to face his officers.

“Mr Ritchie, go and find the trucks. Miss Bennett…” He saw she was putting her boots back on, must have taken them off for the flight, and it made him smile when she shook each one out before putting it on. A fellow desert dweller indeed. “Take charge of disembarking. Organise the men to get all the cargo off. Doctor, supervise the unloading of your medical supplies.”

The officers hurried off to obey. Bennett snagged Sergeant Bekono at once and with him started organising the men into groups to unload their luggage and equipment. It seems men did take notice of a woman wearing stripes. Though he felt sure he saw some of them give her… looks, they obeyed anyway. Perhaps like him they weren’t used to women officers. But like him they gave the rank she carried the respect due to it. And she’d had the sense to go straight to the sergeant to help her organise the men.

Seeing the unloading evolution well under way, Madari strode out of the cargo doors at the back and looked for Ritchie, who he found a moment later, looking harried.

“Our contact says the trucks were delayed, sir. But they’ll be here in an hour.”

“Good, thank you, Lieutenant. Did the contact give you the Land Rover keys?”

“Ah, no. Sorry. I’ll go and get them.” He hurried off again. Madari sighed. Some initiative would be nice. He was used to officers who didn’t need to be told everything.

One of the pilots approached him, for a signature. He signed and thanked them for their service, and the man hurried off to arrange refuelling for the return trip. As he looked around at the grim little building serving the airstrip, the soaked trees surrounding them and the heavy and sodden sky promising more rain soon, Madari had the urge to join that return flight and get back to his homeland, his unit and Kahil. This was madness.

But the two Land Rovers with their UN markings reminded him of his duty and he strode into the building to find their local contact.


The trucks arrived almost two hours later, with profuse apologies from the contact, a local government official. While they waited, Madari had Ritchie check the Land Rover contents very thoroughly against the inventories before he signed for them. The men ate a rather meagre meal of mostly bread, cheese and cold chicken, that the contact had arranged. It looked as if it had cost considerably less than the UN had paid for. Bennett had wrinkled her nose at the sight of the inadequate food, and took Sergeant Bekono and two of the men on some mysterious errand to the village beside the airfield.

Twenty minutes later they all returned with the two men carrying a huge metal cooking pot between them, thick cloths wrapped around its handles. A boy followed leading a donkey that carried saddlebags that made clonking sounds.

“I knew there had to be a pub in town, sir,” Bennett explained, “and thought it might sell food.” The boy started unloading thick china bowls from the saddlebags. The men crowded around and Bekono ordered them to line up in an orderly fashion.

“It’s only stew, sir, but at least it’s hot,” Bennett said as Bekono brought Madari the first bowl.

“Thank you, Sergeant. And well done, Lieutenant. Excellent foraging skills.”

“Call it instinct,” Bennett said. “Oh, thanks, Jules,” she added as one of the men handed her a bowl of stew and a spoon. “Australians hit town, we can home in on the pub like radar.”

“I’m sure that must be a very useful skill,” Madari said. He eyed his stew mildly suspiciously though.

“It’s not pork,” Bennett said. “I asked. It’s goat.” She watched him speculatively, waiting for a disgusted reaction. He just smiled.

“Oh, I haven’t had goat in years.” He tried some. Rather tough, as it usually was. “Not bad. I usually prefer it with more spices. Curried preferably.”

“Curried goat?” Now she was the one reacting at least dubiously, if not disgusted.

“Yes. You should try it.” He smiled. “I think one could call it a taste explosion.”


Eager to get on the road before dark, Madari led his people to the trucks as soon as they they arrived and refilled their petrol tanks. The sergeant got the men into the trucks, and assigned drivers for them and the Land Rovers.

“Oh, I can take one of the Landies, sir,” Bennett said. “I’ve been waiting to have a crack at driving one of these beauties.”

“Um, no,” Madari said. “It shouldn’t be an officer driving.” He tried to recall if he’d ever driven his own staff car back home. No, he didn’t think so. “Anyway, these are very heavy vehicles. I don’t think you could manage the steering.”

She looked down, biting her lip, presumably disappointed. Well perhaps he’d let her try one of them some time, on better roads.

A local man, acting as their guide, got into the Land Rover, sitting up front. The driver turned back to look at Madari after he spoke on the radio to the trucks and the second Land Rover.

“All vehicles report ready to go, sir.”

“Thank you. Please proceed. Stay in touch with the other vehicles at all times.”

They headed out, the three other vehicles lining up behind the first Land Rover. Driving off the paved areas of the airfield and onto the potholed local road bounced the occupants around.

“Oh yeah,” Bennett muttered. “This is gonna be a long trip.”


Jahni ran. In a trance really, eyes barely even focused on the treadmill’s display. The paperwork from earlier in the day, the paperwork he still hadn’t finished, floated before his eyes. Should he go back to the office and try to finish it? Did Madari always finish his paperwork before leaving?

Jahni hated the paperwork. As second in command of course he’d had some to do. But as temporary commander there seemed to be ten times as much. He supposed he’d have to get used to it and get faster at it. Or he could just requisition a big paper shredder. No. Probably not allowed to do that.

So for now, he ran. Escaped. Except… well, how could you escape on a treadmill? No matter how fast you ran, you never got anywhere. He should have gone outside, run home. Fresh air, the darkness. But the road was hard on his ankles and knees in a way the treadmill wasn’t. He couldn’t risk an injury. Must stay in top shape.

A glance at the treadmill’s display showed him he was at around nine kilometres. He’d get to ten and then take a shower and go for dinner. Probably in the officer’s mess, find someone to talk to. He’d already grown tired of eating alone every night.

They relied on each other too much for company, he and Faris, and were lonely without the other. Actually, no, Jahni thought. Faris had Sophia. He had nobody. He’d started telephoning Murdock quite often, to talk about flying. He was close to qualifying now, after all those months of helicopter lessons. His work too often forced him to cancel them, so his training took longer than it should have. But he’d qualify soon, and Murdock was very encouraging about it. And when they finished talking about flying, they talked about other things. Sometimes trivia, nonsense – Murdock was good at that, made him laugh – sometimes more serious things. About combat. About what it did to a man. What it made him feel.

Perhaps he’d call Murdock when he got home. But there was a limit to the number of international calls he could afford.

He just… needed someone to talk to. So strange. He was the one Faris talked to. That was his thing, his special skill, he listened and when he talked it was to soothe, to reassure, to support. He hadn’t realised how much he needed that too, as much as Madari did.

Would Faris manage without him? They’d been parted before of course and he’d… well, he’d found Sophia. But out there, he had nobody. He shook off the thoughts. Ridiculous. Madari wasn’t helpless. He was a senior Army officer. And he was strong. He still had his problems of course, but they weren’t what they had been.

So long ago, and yet such a clear memory, of meeting him for the first time. How damaged he was then. How… fragile. But even then, he’d had that strength still inside him, because he’d fought his way back. Climbed out of that pit. Jahni had helped him, but only his own strength could bring him all the way back

A glance at the treadmill again and he saw he was now close to twelve kilometres. Might as well get to twelve then. The sound of the door from the locker room opening made him glance up, expecting to see one of the unit’s other officers, but to his amazement Colonel Rahama stepped into the gym.

He wore workout clothes – quite clearly brand new, along with his brilliantly white running shoes – and carried a towel and a water bottle.

“Ah, Captain Jahni.” Rahama came to the treadmills and took the one beside Jahni, who slowed his now, ready to do a cool down anyway. “I hope it’s no trouble, my using this gym. I’m told it’s quieter in the evening than the main one.”

“Of course, sir. I, ah, I’ve never seen you, um, in the gym before.”

“No indeed.” Rahama chuckled. “Could you show me how to use this infernal device? I’m sure you’re quite the expert.”

Jahni pointed out the buttons and started the belt, at a nice slow pace.

“My doctor has told me to exercise,” Rahama explained. “Too much rich food.” He patted his stomach. “My tailor has had to let out my uniform twice this year.”

“Oh, I hadn’t noticed, sir.”

Rahama chuckled. “You’re a diplomat, Mr Jahni. A diplomat.”

Jahni smiled. He’d never been called that before.

“And the cigars and coffee don’t do much for my blood pressure, apparently. Neither does being chauffeured everywhere. So here I am. Wondering what happened to the svelte young fellow I used to be at your age.”

“Well, you’re always welcome in our gym, sir.”

Rahama adjusted the speed of the belt, frowning at the display, making it a little faster. Jahni watched him carefully, in case he lost his balance, or made the speed too fast. He’d hate to see the Colonel fall off. He’d probably have to get a transfer back to the Rangers. They’d never be able to look each other in the eye again. But Rahama kept the speed manageable, and hung onto the hand holds as he walked.

“So, how are you adjusting since Colonel Madari left?” Rahama asked.

“Oh, fine, sir.” He smiled. “I’m finding out why the Colonel orders twice as many pens from stores as I do.”

Rahama chuckled in appreciation at that. “Oh yes, I quite understand. You’ll also find out why he hates meetings twice as much as you already do. I’ll try to spare you as many of those as I can. Some are unavoidable though. The monthly meeting with his Majesty of course, non-negotiable.”

“Of course.” He’d been to a few of those before, with Madari and Rahama, especially if there’d been a high profile operation during the month. But would it be different, being there not just as the second, but the commander?

“Don’t worry,” Rahama said, seeing the look on his face. “We’ll have a nice long prep session beforehand. You’ll do well. The king likes you, Captain.”


“Oh yes. And I’m told the crown prince considers you his hero.”

Jahni nearly fell off the treadmill himself. “Me?”

“I’m sure many people in the country consider you a hero.”

“And many other people in the country consider me an enemy.” Jahni bit his lip. A snappish tone, hardly one to use with his commanding officer. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Those people are fools, Kahil.” Rahama’s voice lost the light tone it usually carried. But when Jahni looked at him, he smiled again. “Now, are you free for the rest of the evening? I’d like you to come to my home for dinner.”

He was free of course, and the invitation surprised him only a little. Rahama was a sharp old bird, and he’d be keeping a close eye on Jahni, while Madari was gone.

“I’d be honoured, sir.”

He’d learnt a good deal from Rahama in his time in the Royal Guard. But he didn’t kid himself that he’d learned even a tenth of what the old man knew about the Army, and war, and soldiering. He’d take every opportunity to learn more.

Chapter 2

They arrived so late that Brigadier Drummond, the owner of the lodge, took one look at them and ordered them all to bed instantly, saying they’d sort everything out in the morning. Madari didn’t argue, and let Drummond lead him to this room and, close to falling asleep on his feet, said goodnight.

In the morning he woke to the sound of rain, not a common occurrence for him, and found an alarm clock on the nightstand, showing almost nine o’clock. A shocking time to sleep in until. Before he got up he set the alarm for 6am.

He found his trunk in the sitting room outside his bedroom and, after showering and shaving, he took a clean uniform from it. In this climate, they all wore simple short-sleeved battledress.

He walked back to the bedroom and took his watch from the nightstand. His wristband of amber beads lay beside it. Should he put that on? With the short sleeves it would be visible. Would people assume they were prayer beads? Perhaps he’d leave it for now.

Time to get some breakfast. He’d unpack later and make this his home. It would be his home for six months and he thought he’d be comfortable. The suite was spacious with good, simple furnishings, reminded him of his own house. He had a few adjustments to make as well as his unpacking, but later.

Now… breakfast.

He found the dining room by following his nose, the scent of fresh baked bread filling the corridors. And in there he found Drummond, Bennett and Elimu. The two officers were still eating, but Drummond must have finished – he sat nursing a teacup at the head of the table.

“Please, don’t get up,” Madari said, as Bennett and Elimu started to rise when he entered. Drummond rose though and came around the table to shake his hand.

“Good morning, Colonel. Welcome, my dear chap, welcome.”

“Good morning, Brigadier. I’m sorry we were so late last night, it was an arduous journey.”

“Oh, I’m quite sure!” He took Madari’s elbow and led him to the breakfast buffet. All the lidded trays had labels on them so he could avoid the bacon and sausage. “Nothing’s cooked in pork fat, unless it’s actually pork,” Drummond reassured Madari. “We got all the information the UN sent to us, so please, help yourself.”

“Thank you.” He took a warm plate and found some scrambled eggs and some of the bread whose aroma had led him here. There were pastries on the table, he’d have one of those in a moment.

“What’s your poison, coffee or tea?”

“Oh, coffee, please.”

Drummond poured him a cup from a coffee-pot. “We’re informal here at breakfast time, just serve ourselves. Lunch and dinner, we’re waited on.”

They took their seats, Madari sitting near the top of the table, to Drummond’s right. He sipped the coffee. Not bad. Filter coffee, so not as strong as he preferred of course. But he’d brought a small ibrik with him. He’d brew his Arab coffee when he felt homesick.

“Did you sleep well, sir?” Bennett asked.

“Very well, thank you, Lieutenant. You? And you, Doctor?”

“I was out like a light,” Bennett said. “Nice rooms, I was just saying to the Brigadier.”

“Yes, very nice,” Madari said. “All the officers have their own rooms?”

“You’ve got the only suite,” the Brigadier said. “The others have a room and a private bathroom. I’ve put your two NCOs in a double room with a private bath, and the rest of your lads are sharing three or four, in the family sized rooms and sharing bathrooms.”

“They’re all just as nice, sir,” Bennett said. “I checked them myself to make sure.”

She’d been in the men’s rooms? Ritchie should have done that.

“Ah, thank you. I’ll inspect them myself after breakfast. Please advise the men. Where are they eating?”

“Made one of the big lounges into a mess hall for them,” Drummond said. Madari nodded. He’d inspect that later too, at lunchtime. Make sure they were getting the standard of food and accommodation the UN was paying for and that Madari would expect for his men.

“Where’s Mr Ritchie?” Madari asked Bennett.

“Finished his breakfast,” she said. “Probably unpacking.”

“Right. Yes, we’d all better take the morning to unpack and settle in, and find our way around. Then this afternoon, fourteen hundred hours, I’ll inspect and address the men.”

“Got a nice open space outside,” Drummond said. “Makes a good parade ground.”

“Excellent. Well, assuming it isn’t raining too hard, please parade the men at two o’clock.” He said it to Bennett and then frowned. He should be saying it to Ritchie. “Could you please attend too, doctor? I’ll try not to keep you long. I know you have work to do setting up your infirmary.”

“Yes, sir,” Elimu said, pushing his glasses up his nose as he spoke.

“Are the rooms provided for the infirmary suitable for you?”

“Yes, sir, they’re fine. I had a message waiting for me that the two local nurses assigned will be here by the end of the week. And I want to set up physical examinations for all members of the unit.”

“Oh, is that necessary?”

“It’s part of my standing orders, sir.”

“Very well. Set those up at your discretion.” He grimaced. He knew a copy of his medical records would already have been forwarded on and had hoped that would be enough without more poking and prodding.

“I’ve set up a couple of small rooms as offices,” Drummond said. “One for you, one for the two lieutenants. Tell me if there’s anything else you need.”

“Thank you, Brigadier, it sounds as if you’ve made full preparations for us.”

“Been looking forward to it.” He beamed. “Be like the good old days. Like barracks life again.” He looked at Bennett and smiled. “Though none of the chaps I ever shared a barracks room with were quite so pretty.” She grinned back at him.

“You old charmer.” She’d finished her breakfast now, and she and the doctor left. Madari still had coffee and his pastry to finish so lingered a while, knowing he’d have a busy day ahead of him, getting his new posting into shape.

“More coffee?” Drummond offered a moment later and Madari gladly held out his cup for it. He saw Drummond’s eyes rest on his scarred hands. An unembarrassed gaze, and yet no morbid curiosity or revulsion there.

“Read up about you,” Drummond said, sitting down again. “You’ve seen some action.”


Drummond nodded, understanding the short answer. Perhaps later, they’d talk, as they grew to know each other, but too early yet.

“And you took the Overseas Cane of Honour at Sandhurst.”

“You really have looked me up.”

Drummond shrugged. “Wanted to make sure you were a proper soldier, not a paper-pusher.”

“I do push a lot of paper these days.”

Drummond chuckled. “That never changes. Gets worse the higher you go. Sure there’s plenty of it for the UN too.”


“Have to get your juniors filling in as much of it as you can.”

“Well, Lieutenant Bennett is officially my adjutant, she can…”

“Was thinking of Mr Ritchie myself.”

Madari looked at him surprised, then smiled. “You’ve barely met either of them.”

“I don’t need to tell you how fast a commanding officer has to make judgements, do I?”

He didn’t. And Madari already agreed with him in the short time he’d known the two Australians. His instinct told him which of them was the better soldier. And yet everything else told him that couldn’t be the case, because how could the woman be the better soldier?

“Only worked with a few women officers in my time,” Drummond said. He sipped his tea. “Usually Women’s Royal Army Corp.” He sighed. “That’s gone now. Don’t suppose you even have anything like that?”

“No. It’s certainly going to be a new experience.”

Drummond grinned. “I’m looking forward to being the audience for it.”


Madari unpacked his luggage and then went to check on the accommodation for the men. All seemed satisfactory. The men were positively overwhelmed by their rooms, well above the standard they were used to.

He checked the rooms to use as offices next. Bennett was in there, unpacking stationery supplies and he left her to carry on. Ritchie was in with the doctor, unpacking the infirmary equipment and supplies, along with a couple of the men.

“I asked Mr Ritchie to help me, sir,” Elimu said.

“That’s fine, doctor. Carry on, Mr Ritchie. Did Bennett tell you about the inspection at two o’clock?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Madari would have thought in that case he’d be with the men, making sure everything was in top shape ready for inspection. Never mind, at least the doctor had found him something useful to do.

Lunchtime came around quickly, after the late rising, and Madari went to the “mess hall”, a very pleasant room, with tall windows. Some sofas had been pushed back against the walls and a number of long tables set up. They were trestles, but had tablecloths on them, and were sturdy and level. He checked with the sergeant that the men were happy with the food.

Assured that the food was fine, Madari left to go to the dining room for his own lunch, hearing the men’s voices rise a little as he left the room, no longer conscious of their CO in the room. He found the officers and the Brigadier in there. Did Drummond intend to join them for every meal? Not that Madari objected, as he listened with enjoyment to the man talk during lunch.

He was a character, the crusty old Brigadier, and no doubt played up to the image, for the tourists. Of course, he wasn’t just the owner and manager here, he was part of the experience. People would go home with their wildlife photographs and talk about the eccentric ex-Brigadier who ran the lodge, and all his stories.

He’d gone through a couple of military anecdotes already, Bennett hanging on his every word, and encouraging him. Madari enjoyed not only the anecdotes, but the familiarity of the situation. Ahmed and Drummond would have got along famously, exchanging tall tales. The stories Drummond had told so far weren’t especially tall, but Madari would bet that after dinner, when the port and cigars came out, that would change.

People used to tease Madari when he was a boy, saying he would swallow any story Ahmed told, even if it had already changed three times from the first time he told it. He’d grown more cynical about them later, knew they were embellished. But a good tale well told only improves with some embellishment. He’d remained an eager audience for his grandfather’s stories until the end.


The men were lined up and ready when he stepped out into the paved area in front of the lodge at two o’clock. Seeing him coming, Bennett snapped out, “Attention!” at the men. How odd to hear that order in her high voice. But the voice had a good snap to it, like an officer’s voice should. The men responded quickly, coming to attention.

“Present arms!” Bennett’s voice again. As the men presented arms, Madari noticed another group of men across the yard. They made a great show of being uninterested in the soldiers, but of course, they were watching. They were the men who guarded the lodge and the tourist parties, under the command of a Sergeant Abasi.

Though they wore no uniforms, and were casual looking in the extreme at that moment, lounging, smoking, some even apparently sleeping, Madari would bet Drummond and his sergeant had made them into an effective and disciplined force. It made Madari smile with nostalgia, recalling his own unit of irregulars. He missed those days sometimes.

A glance back at the house showed him the Brigadier watching from a window. A few women were moving around the edges of the yard, working, sweeping, or pegging out laundry. And of course watching. Several small children watched from the open gate.

“Perhaps next time we should do this somewhere less crowded,” Madari said. “Like Picadilly Circus.”

Bennett giggled, disconcerting him. An officer shouldn’t… giggle.

“We do seem to have quite an audience,” Ritchie said.

“Then we will have to give them a show.” Madari adjusted his pale blue beret by a minuscule amount and rather wished he carried a swagger stick the way Ahmed had.

Sergeant Bekono stepped up and saluted. “Men ready for inspection, sir.”

“Very good, Sergeant. Mr Ritchie, with me please.” He left Bennett and the doctor at the end of the line and began to stalk along the line of men, checking their uniforms and weapons. Oh, he should start doing this more often with his unit back at home, he’d forgotten how much he enjoyed it.

The men’s faces were all so young that it startled him. Most were barely twenty-five in his judgement. The two NCOs were around thirty. Hard to say from this distance, but the lodge security force looked the same, though Sergeant Abasi was in his late thirties at least.

This was a young man’s continent. He felt suddenly old. Aside from the Brigadier himself he must surely be the oldest man at the lodge. Back home, men this young would probably call him “uncle” – if he was in civilian clothes anyway. But these men called him ‘sir’ and he kept up a stern look as he went through the inspection.

He straightened a collar here and there, had a man show the chamber of his rifle was clean, that was expected. But everything was good. He’d hope so, at the start of the mission, with a new commander to impress. Things could start to slip later, he knew that from experience, unless he and the rest of the officers kept a strict eye on things.

The inspection done, he moved to stand far enough away from the men to address them and ordered them to stand at ease. When they were silent again a moment later, he cleared his throat, hoped his voice wouldn’t choose that moment to let him down and began to speak, in French.

“You are a well presented unit. You do your army and your country credit and I expect you to keep up this standard throughout our stay here. I expect discipline. When we go out to carry out our mission remember that you represent the United Nations, you represent Cameroon and you represent me.”

A pause. Let that sink in. They all wore serious expressions and listened attentively. Of course. They wanted to know what manner of man their new commander was. A martinet or a pushover? Or something in between?

“We have excellent accommodation here and I expect you to treat it with respect. Myself or the other officers will carry our regular and spot inspections of your rooms. Any damages will be deducted from your pay.” Another pause, make sure that sank in. The rooms were excellent, and the men could start to forget themselves, in such luxury compared to what they were used to.

“I won’t tolerate any drunkenness, fighting, or rowdy behaviour. Any harassment of local women or Lodge staff will be dealt with severely. Again, remember, we represent the United Nations. Outside of our specific mission we have a general one to win hearts and minds. We’re here to help people. On the days you’re not required to accompany me as security there will be work to do. Local projects, rebuilding, helping the doctor deliver medical services to the local people. You won’t be idle, and if you were hoping for that, then you’re going to be disappointed.”

Some of the men puffed out their chests as if to show they were quite ready for the work and certainly didn’t expect idleness. Madari smiled then, softening the stern look.

“You seem to me to be a fine and proud body of men and I look forward to working with you. Now, you have the rest of today to finish settling in and catching up on your sleep. We all had a late night and a long journey. But tomorrow, we start work. Reveille at six, breakfast at six-thirty and PT at seven-thirty. The sergeant will give you details. Dismiss.”

He strode to the officers. Bennett was smiling.

“Letting them sleep in then?” she said.

Madari smiled back. “Six is an unconscionably late hour, I know. But I’m conscious of the Lodge staff. They must already be up in the early hours, they shouldn’t have to get up still earlier. Mr Ritchie, that PT session I mentioned. You will lead it.”

Ritchie looked dismayed. “Ah, yes, sir.” For some reason he didn’t seem keen on the idea.

“Idleness is the danger in a posting like this. The men need activities to keep them distracted and busy. Sport for example. You should organise some games.”

“Are they cricketers?” Ritchie asked, looking at the few men left in the yard now. Fine rain started to fall.

“They’ll be footy players,” Bennett said. “Cameroon’s the best footballing country in Africa.”

Madari nodded his agreement. “Yes. Do either of you know much about football?”

“Only the Australian Rules sort,” Ritchie said.

“We could teach them that.” Bennett chuckled. “That’d keep the doctor busy.”

“Well, talk with the NCOs and see what they prefer. Miss Bennett, can you please convey to the female staff they they should approach you with any complaints about the conduct of the men. Ask them to pass that on generally in the villages locally.” That was one advantage of having a woman officer of course.

“Yes, sir. I’ll talk to Eshe. She’s the Brig’s housekeeper, in charge of the staff.”

“Excellent.” He called Bekono over. “Sergeant, don’t think that I’m forbidding the men to drink, but I mean it when I say that I won’t tolerate drunkenness.”

“They’ll behave, sir. They’re good lads.”

“Please ensure that they don’t build a still.”

“Ah, no, sir. I’ll watch out for that.”

“Good. Also, gambling. I won’t try to stop it. But you will keep a lid on it. No I.O.U.s. The men may only stake what they can put on the table. No cars, houses…” He smiled, remembering the wise words of an old friend, long gone. “Wives.”

Bennett giggled and the Sergeant looked slightly shocked at the joke for a moment. More the source than the joke itself. Then he smiled. “Yes, sir, I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you. You’re dismissed for the rest of the day now.” Turning back to the officers, he found Bennett smiling. “Something funny, Lieutenant?”

She put on a clearly fake serious expression. “No, sir. Just wondering if the part about not building a still applies to officers too?”

Now Madari had to fake his own serious expression. “I’m afraid so, Lieutenant. We must be a good example.”

“Oh, believe me, if I built a still, it would be a very good example.”


The doctor caught him in the afternoon, late in the day, and said they might as well do his physical exam now. He had all the equipment he needed unpacked. Madari tried to put it off, but gave in, deciding he might as well get it over with.

The doctor gave him the typical medico’s scowl at his cigar smoking. And the coffee became a bone of contention when he checked Madari’s blood pressure. Madari promised to try to cut down. That would be easier here anyway, without a constant supply of coffee brewed the traditional Arab way.

“Do you drink, sir?” Elimu asked.

“I’m a Muslim.”

“I’m aware of that. Do you drink?”

“No, I don’t.” The doctor didn’t mean to be insulting, he was sure. He just knew that people were not always as strong as they wanted to be.

Elimu stood up and picked up a stethoscope from the desk.

“Would you take off your shirt, please?”

“Is that really necessary. My lungs are perfectly fine, according to the physical I had last month.”

“I’d like to hear for myself.” He warmed the stethoscope at least, pressing it against his own arm for a moment and the metal didn’t feel too cold on Madari’s skin. Like the Brigadier, the doctor saw Madari’s scars and though clearly noticed them, he had no reaction. After a moment he told Madari to put his shirt back on and sat down again. He made a note on his papers, then turned to Madari and spoke in a voice softer than the stern tone he’d used through most of the examination.

“Do you have any other health issues I should know about, sir?”

It felt easier to talk to him suddenly, the compassion in his eyes was an invitation to trust him. He understood what the scars meant.

“I sometimes get infections in my fingernails, because of the scar tissue.” He held out his hands and Elimu examined them.

“All of them were completely expulsed?”

“All of them.” He hoped the doctor wouldn’t ask what with. Even the word ‘pliers’ still choked him. But Elimu just nodded.

“Come to me at once if there’s any sign of infection. This climate is heaven for bacteria.”

“I will. The only other thing is… sometimes I require sleeping pills. I don’t take them all of the time, but sometimes… for a few nights.”

“I understand.”

“I’ve brought some with me, but if I need more…”

“That will be fine.” He smiled. “We’re done, thank you, Colonel.”

Madari headed to his room to wash for dinner. Bennett met him on the stairs.

“Brigadier’s serving cocktails in the lounge beside the dining room,” she said. “Sort of an icebreaker he said.”

“Thank you, lieutenant, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Oh, sir, nearly forgot to mention. Sergeant Bekono told me that a couple of the Cameroon boys are Muslims like you and he said, if it wasn’t any trouble for you, could you do prayers with them sometimes, at least on a Friday?”

“Oh, ah, of course, Friday at least, I’ll try to make the time.” He felt a twinge of guilt, that his first reaction to that had been wanting to wince, feeling now he’d have the eyes of religious men on him judging him. He should be glad to have some fellow Muslims here, to pray in communion with. He should be glad.

“That’s okay, sir?” Did she notice his hesitation?

“Yes, fine. I was just a little surprised. I think I assumed they’d all be Catholics.”

“Oh no, they’re a mix. The locals here, they’re mostly Catholic.”

“Yes. I was making an assumption. All right, proceed, Lieutenant, I’ll join you soon.”

She smiled, perhaps amused at being told to “proceed” to cocktail hour and went off down the stairs, while Madari continued up them to his room.

In his bedroom after he washed his face and hands he changed into a fresh shirt. A book lay by his bed and he strolled over to pick it up. A photograph of himself and Kahil marked his page and he looked at it for a moment, missing that presence at his side already. Could he really cope with six months away from his… lover? He had before of course, but things had been different between them then. They’d still been hiding so much from each other. He closed the book and went downstairs to the lounge.

The Brigadier took him to the drinks cabinet, but found him a bottle of Coca-Cola.

“You sure I can’t press you to a sherry at least? Don’t feel you’ve got to make a show of things for me. I’ve known Muslim fellas that drank like fish.”

“Thank, you, but no.”

“What about a cigar?”

“Oh, definitely!”

The Brigadier chuckled at his enthusiastic tone. “Good man. Good man.” He reached for a humidor on top of the drinks cabinet and in a moment, Madari had a very fine cigar and the two men stood in a haze of smoke, relishing the cigars.

“Colonel,” Drummond said, around his cigar. “I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”

Chapter 3

He’d been gone a month. Jahni was in better shape than he had been even on the day he’d finished his SAS training, because he spent so much of his free time in the gym. Less free time than before of course, with more paperwork, more meetings, more briefings with Rahama, at the defence ministry, even with the king.

He’d been to one now, and the king had briefly brought along his son to meet his hero, before sending the boy back off to his lessons. It felt awkward and had embarrassed Jahni to try to talk to the enthusiastic child, who of course could have no concept of the reality of Jahni’s work. How did you say it?

I kill people in your father’s name.

But tonight he wasn’t in the gym. Tonight he had an invitation to Sophia’s. She’d arrived back in Qumar almost two weeks ago and had called Jahni a day after that, to ask how he was and to say he must come round, so they could catch up.

He’d lied and claimed to be busy for the next few nights, but eventually accepted her invitation. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her… they could call each other friends, or at least allies. But spending time with her wasn’t at the top of his agenda.

He’d hoped that it would be a party, so he wouldn’t be alone, but no such luck. Her housekeeper was around of course, since it would be improper for him to be in the flat alone with her.

She gave him a drink and said dinner would be ready soon, and offered him small pastry things he tried to make last two bites, out of politeness. Just like an official function. Perhaps he should have worn his dress uniform.

To his surprise she asked if he minded if she smoked. He knew she smoked cigarettes sometimes, Faris had mentioned it. But she’d certainly never smoked one in front of Jahni. That wasn’t ladylike. She was always ladylike. He said to go ahead and smoke. It was her flat after all.

Perhaps she felt as nervous and awkward as him. Their conversation started out with the small talk, catching up. She asked him how he was getting along commanding the unit, how his helicopter lessons were progressing. She told him more than he wanted to know about the Italian civil courts and property and inheritance laws. Though he noticed she didn’t mention exactly how the court cases had turned out, just how long they’d taken.

What if the result had been bad for her? Left her less well off and in the market for another well off husband. He frowned, at himself for such unworthy speculation. Westerners just didn’t talk about money that way. They considered it a private matter.

“So, Kahil,” she said, sitting on the couch, but near the edge of it, not comfortable. Jahni still stood, sipping his drink. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back before Faris left.”

She could have flown back for a day or two. It wasn’t that far away. Yet she hadn’t. Jahni still wondered about that. He wasn’t so childish as to think it meant she didn’t care about Faris; he believed she genuinely did. So there had to be something deeper there. She’d wanted to avoid him, but why?

“He’d have liked to have seen you. He asked me to pass on his regards.”

A guilty look there perhaps. “I admit, I was astonished when he called me and told me where he was going,” she said. “But he is a man of principle, of course.”


“That’s one of his most admirable qualities.”


She looked at Jahni and smiled. “Still, even he is not a saint, in the face of temptation.”

Jahni felt heat rise to his face. Was she taunting him? She knew about their feelings for each other. Did she also know that Jahni knew Madari had told her about those feelings.

“What temptation do you think he’s facing?” Jahni asked.

“Oh, none. At least not out there. Sometimes a man runs away from temptation. Fears his own weakness.”

“And sometimes loneliness can make a man weak in the face of temptation.” She surely looked guilty again. If she feared that Madari had given in to temptation while she’d been gone, then she must blame herself for being gone so long. She thinks he ran from me, Jahni thought. Is she implying he’s weak, or that I…? Well of course, he couldn’t deny the way he’d acted with Madari, after hearing Sophia was free to marry. As confused as his feelings were, and as disgusted at himself as he’d been, still part of him had persisted in teasing and flirting with Madari. Desperate to make him believe he was not a man who could take a wife. A man of principle couldn’t marry while carrying on an affair with his male friend. As much as he still feared the idea of sex with a man, Jahni would have let it happen, if that’s what it took. But then Madari had amazed him by running away.

The question was, which of them was he running from?

“So, have you heard from him much?” Sophia asked.

“He sent a telegram to say he arrived safely, and I’ve had a letter, just last week in fact, though he sent it nearly two weeks before that.”

“No telephone calls?”

“No. They have a satellite phone, mostly for emergencies, he said. The land line coverage is minimal.”

“What’s a satellite phone?”

“It’s…” Well, there was no sense in going into any technical details that she wouldn’t understand. “It’s a kind of radio telephone.”

“Like your cell phones?”

“Well, a little, except much longer range.”

“Did he have anything interesting to say in the letter?”

Jahni sighed. Not as interesting as Jahni would hope. Madari would never be so foolish as to put anything compromising on paper. The letter was entirely innocent, a man writing to his dear friend, not to his lover. He wanted to use the word, even if they could never be that in every sense.

And if he has a lover, he can’t have a wife. Not him anyway. Other men. Less worthy men. Sophia’s late husband for one. But not him. He shook himself, seeing she was waiting for him to answer.

“He told me about the officers he has there with him. One of them’s a woman.”

“A woman officer!” Sophia looked amazed and then laughed. “Oh, Faris won’t know what to make of that! And where is this lady officer from?”


Sophia chuckled again. “Well, we shall just have to hope she’s a plain and dull woman, who won’t turn his head.”

“We?” No, don’t challenge that. Perhaps she slipped. Don’t make her insist she tells you why she included me in that hope.

“Well, I’m sure neither of us wants him to run off to Sydney and open a surf shop.”

“Um, no. No we don’t.”

“Well, I’ll go and check on dinner. I’m sure you’re ready to eat.”

She left the room and Jahni finished his drink and thought about making a dash for it, to avoid whatever difficult conversation they might have over dinner. On the other hand, that would make him look like a coward. And of course, the food… better than most restaurants in the city.

So he stayed. For the food.


Though some people came to the Lodge to see Madari, with their stories of brutality and torture at the hands of the police, usually Madari had to go to them. The distances here were vast, the roads bad and most of the people had no means of transportation. A message would arrive at the lodge to say the people from a village had information for him. Then they just had to find the village.

The maps showed few of them, most too small or too remote. But the Brigadier and his staff proved invaluable there, knowing the local area well. Often one of the Brigadier’s security men would come along as a guide, and to make introductions to the local people, who might otherwise be wary of the soldiers.

Almost a month into the mission, they trekked to a village so far off the beaten track they’d had to walk almost ten miles from the last piece of road the Land Rovers could negotiate.

“We really should have had a helicopter for this job,” Ritchie said, as they headed down a slope, almost at the village now.

“I’ll attempt to requisition one,” Madari said. “And if they don’t have a pilot for us, I know where I can hire a very good one.” He chuckled, at the thought of Murdock livening things up around here, but then winced and rubbed his chin. His skin felt ravaged. Shaving was a daily agony in this climate.

“Mr Ritchie,” he called. “Have you found the humidity makes shaving painful?”

“Cant say I’ve noticed. I use an electric one though.”

“That shows optimism,” Bennett said. “Bringing an electric razor to a country like this. CO I had on a posting in India blew the lights for the whole town every time he plugged his in.”

Madari nodded. “Excellent point. I use a blade myself. But I think I may grow my beard.”

“Thought most of you fellas had beards anyway,” Bennett said.

“It’s not an absolute religious rule. And of course, the same issue with beards applies to us as it does everyone else in the military.”

“Getting a good seal on a gas mask,” Bennett said, nodding.

“Exactly. My men often use tear gas and smoke grenades.” He rubbed his chin again. Yes, he’d grow it. No call for tear gas and smoke grenades here. He wondered what Sophia’s reaction would be if he went home with a beard. She’d never seen him with one except in photographs. To wear one now would bring back memories of his time as a guerilla. He’d shaved it on going back to the regular Army of course, and would do the same when he left here. But it might be interesting to at least keep it until he got home, just to see her expression.

“I think I will grow it. I apologise in advance for my appearance until it comes through properly. Mr Ritchie, you have my permission to grow one too, if you want to stop shaving.”

“Do I need to get permission to stop shaving my legs?” Bennett said.

“Um… no…” he said, glancing back at her. But she was grinning.

“Ignore her, sir,” Ritchie said. “Karen thinks she’s funny.”

“She does have a very… lively sense of humour.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said grinning.

That humour delighted and shocked him by turn. Soldier humour coming from a man could still shock him – as an officer he was at least partly sheltered from the cruder humour that the men laughed at – but from a woman… Not that she was ever crude as such… Still, she shocked him. But Bennett came from a very different culture. Ritchie too, of course, he reminded himself, not intending to single her out.

“It’s the Australian method,” she’d explained, when he overheard her refer to Sergeant Abasi as a ‘bastard’ to his face. Though the man had just laughed, Madari had taken her aside for a stern warning to treat the locals with respect and that he was surprised at her, since she seemed to get on so well with the Lodge staff. She said that not only was getting along with people by insulting them the Australian way, but that the word ‘bastard’ itself was generally used as a term of great affection. Madari had only believed that because of his experience living in London, where they had similar… methods and the terms and slang Jahni had brought home from his training.

So he gave her and Ritchie some leeway with the Australian method. He saw that it startled the doctor sometimes too and they often shared mutual looks of bafflement. But the men ‘got’ it. So did the Brigadier and his security men. The Brigadier was inordinately fond of Bennett in fact. The old goat.

They reached the valley floor and saw people gathering in the village, waiting for them. Madari called the man who’d accompanied them today as a guide, and asked him to help with the introductions. Hopefully the people spoke French, but some might speak only Swahili. There were translators for that among his men, and the doctor spoke it too.

As they approached the village, some children who’d been playing nearby ran to greet them, though didn’t actually come up to them, just stopped a few yards away and then turned and went ahead of them, back towards the village.

One boy shouted out as they went, in French, calling for his father. And Madari’s party heard the words he called to tell his father who was here.

“Papa! Ici est M’sieur Chapeau Bleu!”

Bennett started to giggle and Madari sighed. “I hate nicknames.”

“I like it,” Bennett said. “Mr Blue Hat.”

“I suppose it’s a term of affection, Miss Bennett.”

“I’d call it a term of respect,” she said and winked. “Well, you get a M’sieur, don’t you?”

The villagers were polite, though reserved too. They offered food that they probably couldn’t afford to spare and Madari made sure they received as much in return so they wouldn’t be left short.

Three of the men from the village had complaints of police torture and through the day they spent in the village, Madari and Ritchie interviewed the men. The doctor examined them, and Bennett, who was the unit’s official photographer, took pictures of their scars under the doctor’s direction.

When she wasn’t doing that, she spent most of the day playing with the children, and their laughter and shouts formed an incongruous background accompaniment to the more grim tasks of the male officers.

He didn’t mind her doing that. Hearts and minds were part of the mission here, and perhaps she should be shielded from some things. Not only because she was a woman, but because she was so young. Though she had a few years experience in the Army, she was still so idealistic about the world, still so full of hope. He’d hate to see her spirit crushed.

He stood at the door of a hut, watching her playing with the children, chasing them and swinging them around when she caught them, before letting them go to run off and be chased again. Inside the hut a strong man, a farmer, who fed his family with the strength in his back, was weeping, with the pain of the memories of what the police had done to him. To come out here and see such an innocent and happy scene put some hope back into Madari.

The doctor called him back inside then, and he turned away. When he came out nearly twenty minutes later the children – the boys at least – were playing football with some of the Cameroonian soldiers. Bennett was talking to a group of the village women.

It began to rain.


“Sir,” Bennett said. “I’ve got something for you.” Madari looked up from gazing into the campfire. She handed him an envelope, with the name of the village they’d left earlier written on it, along with the name of a family. He nodded and she sat down beside him.

He took three sheets of coarse and already yellowing paper out of the envelope. It looked as if it had been torn from a school exercise book. The sheets were filled on both sides with a letter, in French, in carefully rounded handwriting, that grew more careless and messy as the letter went on. No… not careless, but rather… agitated. The pen had dug more deeply into the paper, so he could feel the shapes of letters from one side pressing through to the other side. The writing no longer stayed neatly on the thin, blue ruled lines. Madari didn’t read it, not yet. It wasn’t his letter.

“What is this, Lieutenant?”

“One of the women gave it to me, sir. It’s from her son, who went off to Kinshasa for work. Apparently on the way there he got arrested in a town, after he got into a fight. The police tried to make him confess to various other crimes – which he couldn’t have committed, since he only just arrived. The letter describes the things they did to him to get a confession.” She didn’t elaborate.

“Is this man still in prison?”

“No. A magistrate released him eventually and he went on to Kinshasa as planned. But he wrote to his family to tell them what happened. His mother… well, she said the family didn’t really tell anyone about it, because people would say her son was a criminal. But she knows that what they did to make him confess is what we’re here to investigate, so she gave me the letter. In case it would help.”

Madari remembered her talking to the women, after she’d been playing with the children. Hearts and minds. Bennett didn’t just have a heart, she had a mind too. Playing with the children gained her the trust of the mothers, and the trust of the woman who gave her this. An unsolicited, written complaint about torture with… he glanced over the letter quickly, dates and places.

“Karen, this is excellent. This is very valuable evidence. Very good work obtaining it.”

“No problem, sir. Hey, gotta look like I was doing some work and not just playing ‘catch’ all day.”

“If playing ‘catch’ is part of your method for obtaining such good evidence, then feel free to play it as much as you like.”

“You can join in next time, if you like, sir.”

“Ah, thank you, no. I doubt if I could keep up. Did you find out anything else?”

She nodded, the firelight catching the edges of her hair that she’d pulled from its usual band tying it back. The light of the flames turned it from light brown to gold.

“There was something else… it isn’t anything to do with our mission here though so I don’t know if you want to hear it, but I want to report it anyway.”

“Of course. Go on. What is it?”

“The women mentioned they’d lost a child from the village, about a month ago. He went out playing one day and didn’t come back. He was nine.”

“Could he have been attacked by an animal?”

“Well, that’s what they think must have happened. Everyone searched. They know where the dangerous animals are around here, and some of the men went to check there and see if they could find… you know, remains. But they found nothing. Of course… it’s a lot to search, and thick undergrowth, even for locals. They probably just missed finding the body. But… well… maybe that’s not what happened.”

She meant another kind of dangerous animal, Madari thought. The most dangerous one on the planet.

“They think he could have been taken by someone?”

“Well, you hear of people traffickers. Someone could have grabbed him and sold him to go work in a mine, or factory or something.” She grimaced in disgust, and Madari realised he was doing the same. But a moment later, he sighed.

“There really isn’t anything I can do about this, you realise that?”

“I know, sir. Just thought, well there should be a report.”

“Of course. Please pass me all the details when we get back to the Lodge and I will include them in my report from the village. That’s all I can do.”

“Thank you, sir.” She looked into the fire for a while, a far away expression on her face. Then she turned and gave Madari a weak smile. “Like you said; we’re not here to rescue the whole country.”

“We just don’t have that power.”

“Not even M’sieur Chapeau Bleu?” She was smiling wider now.

“There’s no chance I could persuade you to forget you heard that?”

“Snowballs and hell come to mind.”

He shook his head. “From Knight of the North to Mr Blue Hat. I need to go and start a war somewhere to get a more glorious nickname again.” Now he was teasing her, and she laughed.

“Knight of the North? Where did you pick that one up then?”

“Oh, I used to be a guerilla warlord.” He affected his most casual tone.

She stared at him for a moment, mouth open, then shook her head. “You are full of surprises, Colonel. I thought you were posh.”

“I am.”

“So tell me, how’d you get that nickname?”

Ah, a chance to rival the Brigadier’s and even Ahmed’s tall tales. “Well, have you ever heard of The A-Team?”


Jahni waited in Rahama’s outer office, looking out of the window into the courtyard. The sound of the fountain drifted up to him through the open window. It lifted his grim mood a little.

He should be happy. Thrilled even. All those lessons and finally he had his helicopter pilot’s licence. But without Faris here, who did he have to celebrate it with? The men congratulated him, and that felt good. But still. He could call Murdock, but he’d resolved to surprise him next time they went to the US. Except, who knows if they ever could go together again. Couldn’t leave the unit deprived of both its senior officers while they went off on holiday.

He’d have loved to have gone with Faris to that trip to Yellowstone. Spent those days and nights together, under the stars. Chaperoned of course, with Hannibal there, but it could have been wonderful.

Would they ever have more than perhaps a weekend like that now? No. Probably not. Weekends, evenings, afternoons, nothing more.

The voice of Rahama’s clerk broke into his thoughts.

“You can go in now, Captain.”

“Captain Jahni reporting as ordered, sir,” Jahni said, stepping up to Rahama’s desk and handing him the folder he carried. “My report on the last training exercise and recommendations.”

“Excellent, thank you, Captain. I asked you to bring it to me personally so I could also offer my congratulations on your new pilot’s licence.”

“Thank you, sir. I hope it will prove useful.” He hoped it would. Their work kept changing, offering new challenges. Intel now told of training camps out in the desert and the mountains. Training camps for terrorists. Dealing with them would be a different challenge than raiding houses here in the city. Long range combat skills, far away from backup would be needed, and a wider range of skills. Plus of course, the need to improvise. Jahni smiled to himself. Like the old days. He was good at improvising.

“Please come to dinner tonight at my house, so we can celebrate,” Rahama said. “Quite informal of course, just us, no party. Unless you already have plans?”

“No, sir, no plans. I’d be delighted to accept.”

“Excellent. My driver will collect you from your home at eight.”

“I…” He almost protested that he’d drive over himself, but stopped. If Rahama wanted to send a driver, then Jahni would be happy to be chauffeured in the big Mercedes. “Thank you, sir. I look forward to it.”


Rahama’s personal chauffeur must be ex-military, Jahni thought. He buzzed at Jahni’s flat at exactly eight o’clock. Jahni was ready of course, freshly showered and shaved, his shoes polished, clothes pressed, hair neat. In a moment he was in the back of the Mercedes, carefully balancing the decorative floral arrangement he was bringing as a gift.

The driver gave him a look in the rear view mirror now and again, but didn’t say much. Was he awed by the famous Captain Jahni? That seemed to happen a lot these days. He’d rather be anonymous, to be frank. The plane hijack – that’s when it had started, his face and name appearing in the newspapers and on TV. They’d kept the rest of the unit out of there, but Madari had explained that Rahama considered the two of them the unit’s public face. They were the focus of the public support the unit would need in the years ahead.

Rahama avoided such serious subjects that evening though, playing the friendly old uncle role he was so good at, avuncular and harmless. He accepted the gift and said his wife would find it charming, and told the servant to please serve dinner at once.

They walked through to the dining room, Rahama talking Jahni’s arm. That startled Jahni initially, but then it pleased him to be the object of such a friendly gesture. Rahama was his commander and a good friend to Faris, but perhaps Jahni had forgotten to notice that the Colonel was his friend too. Perhaps he made this intimate, informal gesture to remind Jahni of that. Jahni was a wary man, and a stranger touching him certainly put him on heightened alert. But friends had leave to make that contact.

“I know it’s quite early,” Rahama said, “But I find at my age I can’t eat too late at night. Especially not the rich food my chef prepares.”

“That’s fine, sir. I’m always ready to eat.”

“So I hear, Captain, so I hear.”

“And you always serve your guests generously and with delicious food.”

“Ah, your diplomacy skills are coming along very well.”

Jahni chuckled and took his seat at the small table, set for two. He hadn’t eaten in this room before, though he’d been to dinner parties at Rahama’s home often. Was this the room where Rahama shared private meals with his wife or close friends?

A servant brought in the first course and after he left, Rahama picked up the bottle of red wine the man had placed on the table.

“You’ll have some, Captain?”

Jahni hesitated, but then picked up his glass and held it out for Rahama to pour. No doubt Rahama knew that Jahni took a drink sometimes. He knew that Rahama did the same, and again, he felt that sense of intimacy with the colonel. Rahama only drank wine at dinners with close friends, not at larger gatherings.

Still Jahni felt the need to say, “I know I shouldn’t.”

“Please, don’t worry about appearances with me,” Rahama said. He poured his own wine and sat back. “I’m not as strict as Faris.”

Jahni sipped his wine. Madari might be strict on abstaining from alcohol himself, and didn’t approve of Jahni drinking either, but in other religious matters… well, he had some issues. How much of that did Rahama know?

“Colonel Madari’s religious faith is stronger than mine, I’m afraid,” Jahni said. Something of an understatement, but diplomatic.

“And mine.” Rahama nodded, smiling. “Religion is… well, its rituals are a comfort to many people of course. It gives us rules to live by. But I wonder if intelligent men who know their own minds need comfort and proscription like that.”

Jahni stared, then put his wine glass down carefully, not certain how to respond, without giving away too many of his own secrets. Did Rahama have secrets too?

“Intelligent and practical minded men, I should say. Faris is of course an intelligent man, but he always had a spiritual side.” He sighed. “The son of a poet and the grandson of a warrior, and influenced equally by both.” He smiled again. “Perhaps one day I’ll fully understand him, but until that day I know he’ll surprise me every day.”

Jahni said nothing. How much did he understand Faris himself, if Rahama, who’d known him for so long, did not? Of course, though Madari and Rahama had a long friendship, Madari and Jahni had one that was more… intimate. Jahni knew so much about him that Rahama didn’t. Couldn’t ever know.

“Oh, I almost forgot why I asked you to dine with me in the first place.” Rahama raised his glass in a toast. “Congratulations on gaining your pilot’s licence.”

Jahni raised his own glass in thanks for the toast.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take the training. Thank you for…” he hesitated, blushing. “Thank you for all the support you’ve given me since I transferred, Colonel. I know it’s made a huge difference.”

“Oh, my dear young fellow, you’re welcome. And very welcome in the regiment. I’ve never regretted signing that transfer order.” He raised his glass again. “Let us drink to your high-flying future.”

Jahni grinned and they clinked glasses, then sat back and continued eating.

“I read your report,” Rahama said later, between courses. “Some good recommendations there. When do you intend to put them into effect?”

“Well, when Colonel Madari returns, I’ll put them to him and see which he approves.”

“Why wait?”


“Does Colonel Madari usually accept your recommendations?”

“Most of them.”

“So he trusts your judgement?” Rahama pressed.

“I think so. On operational matters, training matters, yes, I think he does.”

“Then don’t wait. If you have new initiatives, put them in place now. When Faris returns you can report on how effective they were. Of course, then it will be his decision on whether or not to keep them.”

“Of course.”

“But you’re in command now, Captain. I’d like to see you do more than keep his chair warm.” He smiled, eyes twinkling in the kindly uncle fashion again. But Jahni knew he’d just been given an order.

Chapter 4

Bright lights and music spilled from the Lodge’s windows and doors. Madari had stepped outside to take a break from the Christmas party and now strolled in the yard out front, smoking a cigar. Drummond appeared in the main door and Madari called out to him.

“Good evening, Clive.”

Drummond hunted in the darkness until he spotted Madari, then strolled over to fall into step beside him. He had a cigar too, but also a generously filled whisky glass. His face was quite flushed, his nose especially red.

“Haven’t had a proper Christmas bash like this for years! Place is usually empty at this time of year.”

“It’s very kind of you to throw a party for us. I hope the men don’t get too rambunctious.”

“Rambunctious.” Drummond chuckled. “That’s a good word. Rambunctious. Well, I hope you’re letting them sleep in tomorrow, because I think there’ll be a few sore heads.”

“I’ll let them off morning PT for Christmas, yes,” Madari said.

“Got the kitchen working on a good Christmas dinner for tomorrow. Hard to call it traditional, since we’re such a mixed group, but there’ll be plenty of it.”

“Excellent. In that case, we’ll have extra PT on the twenty-sixth.”

Drummond roared with laughter. “You keep those boys on their toes. They’re a good bunch of lads. Devil makes work for idle hands and you’ve kept them from being idle. Kept them out of mischief. They’ve got a lot of respect for you.”

“Thank you, that’s good to hear.”

“They’re friendly with my lads and they mention it. Think a lot of you. Discipline, but fairness. That’s what gains the respect of troops.” He puffed on his cigar. “And believing you put their interests first. Seen too many officers who think the troops are just there for him to use to make him look good.”

“Yes, I’ve seen that too.”

“If a commander gets it right with the men, respects them, then it’ll come naturally from them. They’ll want to make him look good.”

“Not just ‘him’ these days.”

“True, true. She’s got a different approach from you of course.”

“Well, she’s not a commander yet. A junior officer can get away with a more informal relationship with the troops.” Bennett’s approach, her informal way with the men reminded him of Jahni’s. Perhaps she was a sergeant at heart, like him. But he’d seen Jahni’s friendly approach change over the years, to one with more distance, like his own, as Jahni moved up in rank and the chain of command. He was still more approachable than Madari himself, but less so than the young lieutenant Madari had known at the camp.

“She’s looking very pretty tonight,” Drummond said, smiling. “Nice to see her in a dress.”

Madari felt a little uncomfortable with the direction of the discussion. Not something he was used to talking about. But he made an effort.

“You’re old enough to be her grandfather, my friend.”

Drummond laughed. “Very true. But it does my old heart good to see her anyway. Mr Ritchie looked as if he was enjoying it too. Don’t think she’s interested in him though.” He winked at Madari in a suggestive way that made him blush.

“Um… well, I’m old enough to be her father. And she’s under my command.”

“What happens at Christmas parties doesn’t count,” Drummond said. He chuckled. “Most people forget what they did the next day anyway, had so much to drink.”

“I don’t drink.”

“Like I said, Christmas parties don’t count. Come on back inside now, Faris. It’s starting to rain.” He put a hand over the top of his whisky glass to shelter it from the fine raindrops.

“I’ll just have a few more minutes, I think.”

“Suit yourself. Don’t get soaked through and sit around in your wet clothes. Knew a fellow in Lagos did that and died of pneumonia two days later.”

The Brigadier seemed to know of more men who had died from accidents, illness and general foolishness than ever died in combat. Madari watched him go and continued strolling, thinking about his words. He doubted Bennett had any romantic interest in him. They had become friendly, it was hard not to, she was easy to get along with, even if her manner startled him often. But he felt sure nothing else lay behind that.

Or was it him? Was he not able to see it if a woman was attracted to him? Sophia had been forced to take the lead in their relationship, from their first kiss, to their first sexual encounter. Was that because his interests lay elsewhere? He certainly sensed Kahil’s interest in him. And when Raslan had made coded advances, he’d had no trouble picking up on those. Despite the fact he could make love to a woman, and care for her, was there something fundamentally different about him?

And yet, aside from Kahil and Raslan, he rarely felt attracted to other men. There’d been times in the past, when he was young… but he’d always repressed and denied such feelings. The fact he could do that made him believe they were nothing but insane moments, temptations to sin.

His unit had many fit and handsome young men in it, but he never had inappropriate thoughts about any of them. Out here, Mr Ritchie was entirely safe from him and the Cameroonian soldiers didn’t attract his eye, however handsome and well-built some of them were. Was it only Kahil? No, Kahil and Raslan. As much as he despised Raslan now, he couldn’t deny the physical attraction he’d felt for him, or how close he’d come to giving in to Raslan’s attempt at seduction.

So, did he have a… type? Only Arab men, with thick, glossy black hair? Then why did he not look at other men in the street, or the men in his unit? Because his mind was filled with Kahil? Or because his mind was filled with fear? His feelings for Kahil were too strong to repress, where a passing fancy for a handsome young man on the street would be stifled before he even noticed it.

He was very afraid of the word ‘homosexual’. When his psychiatrist, Dr Fauzi, used the word he had protested that he didn’t think of himself that way. Though Fauzi hadn’t pressed the point then, Madari suspected that he thought how Madari liked to think of himself and the reality of the situation might be two different things.

He realised he really was quite soaked through now, and should go back inside. The party was coming to an end now, close to midnight and they didn’t need his help to finish it. He headed upstairs, took a warm shower to guard against any chill, so Drummond wouldn’t have a tale about this Arab fellow he knew who got a soaking and died a week later.

Over the next hour, the music downstairs silenced and the voices of the revellers quietened, as the men and officers retired, Madari read for a while then turned off his light.


Bright light in his eyes.

“What I do next you will never recover from. I promise you that.”

Mouth too dry to spit. Could curse, swear impotently at the demon. Did no good. What could he call the creature that it hadn’t been called a hundred times, a thousand times before?



The cry was in his dream. Still in the dream and only the dream. Not screaming awake. He knew that this was a dream, not real, not really there again and yet he was there. He felt the pain as the pliers clamped onto his fingernails and ripped. One by one. Heard his own inhuman shrieks and pleas for mercy as he they mutilated him. Remembered vomiting. Remembered wanting them to kill him. Killing him would be mercy. Praying for death.

And breaking. Remembered breaking. Saying the names of the King’s Men. The names of his friends. Rahama. Gave him up first. Friend. Mentor. Betrayed him. Sobbing with shame, and self-loathing. Sobbing out the last name as the blood poured from his hands.

“Faraj. Idris Faraj! Captain Idris Faraj!”

Madari woke, crying out Faraj’s name.

Darkness. The hood? No, they took it off so he could see. See the blood. But he couldn’t see. He was blind! No, the light, put on the light. Kahil. Where’s Kahil? Help me, Kahil, help me!

Blind, and terrified of what he’d see, he fumbled by the bed, trying to find the switch for the lamp, hearing things fall to the floor. Didn’t know what. Didn’t care. Needed the light.

His groping hand found the switch suddenly and the bedside lamp came on, a small circle of soft light, enough for him to hold his hand up to, looking for blood, looking for the fresh wounds. He found only the old scars and the present slowly came back.

Long ago. Long ago. And yet, it felt new. Because the dream never went there. Never. It always stopped when Sevchenko called for the pliers. Always. He couldn’t go further. His mind wouldn’t take it. He heard the word pliers and woke, calling out for Kahil, for the voice, for the arms to hold him.

Tonight, they weren’t there. But he needed them. His head was spinning and he suddenly threw back the tangled and sweat heavy sheets and staggered to his bathroom. He swept his hand over the light switch as he passed and the light was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. But he closed his eyes against it as he dropped to his knees by the toilet and vomited.

Eventually he managed to drag himself across to the sink and scoop cold water into his mouth then over his face, washing over the sweat and tears, before he dropped to the floor, legs too shaky to hold him, trembling like a man with a high fever.

He looked at his hands again, still expecting to see blood, still amazed at how old the scars looked. As if it happened years ago. It did happen years ago, he reminded himself, trying to hang on to the present, terrified he’d lose himself back in the past and be unable to escape.

Could he go mad because of it? So long after it happened?

Was it even the worst thing they did to him? The other horrors he relived regularly in his dream, yet that moment had been hidden from him for so long. Not because of what they did, he now realised. Because of what he did. Because he broke. Because he did something so utterly unacceptable that he could do nothing but hide it. Suppress the shame, never see it, never have to remember the moment.

He felt shame again now as he realised he was lying on his bathroom floor curled up, the sobs choking him, only just becoming aware of them.

No. Not his bathroom. The Lodge. Zaire. He was in Zaire. Air so thick and damp. He wanted the dry, cool air of the night in the desert. He wanted the silence of his own room, not the clicks and buzzes of the jungle outside.

And he needed Kahil. He couldn’t deal with this alone. He needed Kahil. Needed that voice to hold back the darkness still clawing at his back.

More memories came back to him. Newer memories. Why he was here. Who was here with him. And equipment they had here. Equipment. Yes. Yes. He could hear Kahil’s voice at least.

He climbed to his knees, then his feet, wobbly and dizzy. His bathrobe hung on the back of the bathroom door and he dragged that one, seeking the comfort of its warmth. It covered him to his knees. Decent enough. Good. Because he had no time to dress, couldn’t wait that long.

He had to find Bennett.


Karen Bennett, who’d been only mildly tipsy at the Christmas party, woke to the sound of someone knocking at her door.

What? Had she slept through her alarm? The colonel would have her guts for garters. No, it was still pitch black. She turned on her bedside light and the clock showed barely four. Must be some kind of emergency. Bloody typical. Unless it was Santa Claus and he’d got lost trying to find the chimney. She giggled and got up when the knock came again, grabbing her dressing gown to put on over the pyjamas she wore and slipping her feet into a a pair of slippers after giving them a quick shake out.

She opened the door to find Colonel Madari standing there. Shit, he looks like hell, she thought. Hair wild, face streaked and eyes red, as if he’d been crying. Pretty green around the gills too, and trembling.

“Sir, what’s wrong? Are you ill?”

“What? No. Phone, Karen. I need you to make the… the phone, the satellite phone work.”

“What?” She came out of the room, closing the door behind her and he at once turned to head up the corridor towards the stairs. She hurried after him. “Sir, what’s happened?” Someone must be dead, she thought, though couldn’t imagine who that could be to produce such a reaction in Madari. She hadn’t seen him anything but controlled and dignified.

“I need to talk to someone. To Kahil.” They reached the stairs and she had to grab at his arm as he wobbled on the top step. Glancing down, she saw his feet were bare. He stared at her wildly for a moment, and tried to pull his arm away, but she held on firm and started down the stairs. Giving in, he came with her, letting her steady him.

He wanted to talk to Kahil? Now? In the middle of the night? She knew who Kahil was of course, Madari talked of him often. His second in command, a comrade in arms for many years and a close friend. She’d even seen a picture of him – used to mark a place in a book, a picture of the two of them. But why did Madari want to talk to him now?

A moment later, they reached the office she shared with Ritchie and she manoeuvred Madari to a chair, then went to get out the satellite phone. He didn’t stay in the chair, jumped up and started to pace up and down. Karen hoped there were no drawing pins on the floor, thinking of his bare feet.

“Sir,” she said, as she began to set up the phone. “I really don’t think we’re going to get a signal. The satellite won’t be in the right place.” He turned such an anguished look on her, that she thought her heart would break. Whatever had upset him, driven him so close to the edge of control, it had to be something bad and she wanted to help in any way she could. “But I’ll try, sir. There could be another one I can piggyback on. I’ll do my best.”

Her best wasn’t good enough. A couple of times she thought she was going to get there, but the reception faded away again, leaving them with nothing. By the time she gave up, after almost as hour, Madari had stopped pacing and was sitting at Ritchie’s desk, with his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, finally, and reluctantly admitting defeat. “I just can’t get it.”

He sat up, running his hands down his face. “Thank you,” he said, his voice distant and faded. Almost a whisper. He cleared his throat. “Thank you for trying.” He looked around the room as if he didn’t recognise it. “I’m… sorry. I shouldn’t have disturbed you.”

“That’s okay.” She packed up the phone and put it back into the cupboard, then went over to Madari. He was calmer, but not okay yet, not by a long way. That look in his eyes, as if he was barely here, was somewhere else. Somewhere bad. She still needed to take care of him. “Would you like some tea, sir?”

“Tea? Oh, yes. Perhaps. That’s good.”

“Wait here.”

She hurried into the kitchen, and started making the tea. She was familiar with where to find everything, since she often hung out in there talking to the staff. Placing the things on a tray, the gently steaming pot last of all, she took it all back to the office and put her head around the door. Madari was in the same place, staring into the distance. No, she thought, staring into the past.

“Follow me, sir,” she said, rousing him. Before he could speak, she set off and led him up the stairs. Get him back to his room and then get him back into his bed, when he’d had the tea. He needed his sleep. Sleep always helped.

Bennett worried for a moment about what she would find in his rooms, but everything appeared normal. She set the tray down on a table and poured two cups of tea. Madari stood by the door, staring at her, but she put his cup on the table and then brought him from the door to the sofa. She closed the door as she led him away from it and he looked back at it, then at her, shaking his head.

“Sit down,” she said, firmly, before he could start talking about being chaperoned. Whenever the two of them were alone in a room together, he was always careful to leave the door open. It amused her, his old fashioned ways, protecting her reputation. Well, right now, the closed door would protect his reputation, because it wouldn’t do for anyone else to see him so distressed. That clod Ritchie for one. Had all the sensitivity of a brick.

She sat on the sofa opposite him, sipping her tea. He watched her for a moment, then picked up his own cup. They drank the tea in silence, and some colour had come back to his face by the time he’d finished his cup.

“There’s more in the pot,” she said. “Pour you another?”

“Thank you,” he said, his voice stronger now. He was coming back from whatever terrifying place he’d been. Karen poured the tea and noticed a jar with biscuits in it on the side table with his coffee things. Getting his blood sugar up could only be good. Taking the jar back to the table along with his tea, she offered him a biscuit. He took it with that baffled look on his face again, as if the ordinary had become strange to him.

Where was he, she wondered? Behind those scared eyes, where was he that frightened him so much? He’d been a soldier for many years. He must have seen so much. And she recalled his story about how he became a guerilla, how he’d been in prison. Looking at his fingernails, she wondered about the parts of that story he hadn’t told her. She sat down again, still watching him carefully.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get through to Kahil, sir.”

“That’s all right, Karen. You did your best. It was… foolishness.”

“No, sir, I understand. Sometimes there’s… one person we have to talk to.” She hesitated. “I know I’m not that person, sir, but I’m here. You can talk to me.”

“You shouldn’t even be here.” He glanced over at the closed door. “In my room, I mean.”

“You let me worry about that,” she said, smiling. If someone saw her leaving Madari’s room it would stick it to Ritchie. He kept saying all Arabs were poofters.

“Karen… I really can’t. There are things… things I can only talk to him about.” The voice had become a whisper again.

“Then talk to me about Kahil.”

He stared at her. It could work, she thought. Any talking was better than him spiralling down into the darkness she could see trying to drag him away. If he couldn’t talk to Kahil, then talking about him might help. Might give Madari the strength to resist the darkness, even if he only had the memories of his friend and not his presence.

“Where was that photograph you use as a bookmark taken?” she asked.

“You’ve seen that? It… it was… in Hereford. At the SAS barracks. We were there consulting with them, for setting up my anti-terror unit. That’s when Kahil decided to try to pass Selection.”

“Did he pass?”

“Yes. He completed the six months training. He was the first man from our country to do so.” His voice grew stronger again, filling with pride.

“That’s impressive. He must be bloody good.”

“He’s the best soldier I’ve ever worked with. And the bravest.” He paused. “He once took a bullet for me.”

“What, in combat?”

“No, an attempted assassination. He saw the car. He saw the gun and he stepped in front of me.”

Bennett stared, genuinely impressed now, not just encouraging him to talk. “Wow.”

Madari smiled weakly, something she was glad to see. “He used to be my bodyguard you see, when we were guerillas. I don’t think he’s ever quite grasped that that’s no longer his job.”

He continued talking, becoming more animated, the faded, distant quality gone from his voice and manner. His affection and respect for his friend came through every word, as he talked about Kahil’s many acts of bravery and daring. The guy sounded like a hell of a soldier, and Bennett decided she really wanted to meet him.

But not because he was a hell of a soldier. She’d met plenty of those. She wanted to meet him because this tough, daring, SAS-trained badass was the man Madari wanted to talk to when he was half round the bend from some personal emotional crisis. That meant there had to be something more to Kahil than kicking ass. Something more to their relationship.

They talked the sun up, the pale, watery light coming through the raised blinds, promising another wet day. Madari, much recovered, though very tired looking, smiled at the grey light and turned to Bennett.

“Happy Christmas, Karen.”

She’d almost forgotten. Of course, it was Christmas morning. Good thing the colonel had already given the whole unit the day off. She’d need to spend the morning in bed to catch up on her sleep.

“Happy Christmas, sir. Well, I know, you don’t celebrate it.”

“No, but it is Christmas, and a wish for me to be happy on Christmas day is perfectly welcome. Thank you.”

“Er, right, whatever you say, sir.” She smiled. “You feeling better now?”

“Thank you, yes.” He stood up and held out his hand to her for a shake. “It was good of you to stay with me, Karen. I’m sorry you had to see me that way. I’d appreciate your discretion about it.”

“Of course, sir.”

The night was over, and she saw he needed to be alone now, to get back to the version of himself that he presented to the world. So she nodded and said, “See you for Christmas dinner later, sir.”

She left the room. Not sneaking around. That would look guilty, but even so, she was happy nobody saw her on the way back to her own room. She didn’t want to be questioned about it. It was private. Madari had asked for her discretion, but he didn’t need to ask. It never occurred to her to breathe a word of what had happened. Ritchie would be an arse about it, so she wouldn’t tell him even under torture. So the colonel had a rough night? Didn’t they all from time to time? Nobody else’s business but his.

He must have some… demons he struggled with, yet in the weeks they’d all been serving together, this was the first time she’d seen the evidence of that. The rest of the time, he was as strong as any commander she’d worked with. Whatever had brought him to the point of losing control, it had to be bad, something almost as strong as him. Something he needed help dealing with when it attacked at full strength as it had tonight. Seemed Kahil was the usual one to help. Well tonight, she’d had to be a substitute for Kahil. She hoped she’d been a worthy one.


‘My dear friend

‘I hope this finds you well, and working hard. No doubt it will be the new year by the time you receive this. I hope you got to attend Sophia’s Christmas party.’

Madari paused and wanted to tear up the letter, eliminate the bland sentiments. He’d written to Kahil from here a few times now and found it extraordinarily difficult. It was like having a conversation with him in a room that might have a hidden camera. Paranoia told Madari to be careful about anything he put on paper to Kahil. He’d carried that caution since he burnt that note the night before the battle for the camp.

Find me in paradise.

He’d love to have letters from Kahil that told of their true feelings. Letters he could read again and again. His mother had always kept letters from his father, and the book of hand written poems he’d given her. Such things were so precious. And he would never have them. Never dare. Just in case they ever fell into the wrong hands.

It was more than paranoia. All those years ago, his house had been searched after his arrest, looking for papers about the conspiracy. But what if the same kind of thing were to happen again and they found… personal papers? Compromising letters?

He wouldn’t risk it.

But he had to tell Kahil about last night. Kahil had been his guide back out into the light on so many of those evil nights that the compulsion to tell him about it remained as strong as it had last night. If he couldn’t tell him on the phone, then a letter was his only option.

‘Last night, I had a dream, one I’ve had many times before. The one that always ends at a certain point. You know which one I mean. But last night it didn’t end. It went on and I relived the rest of that time. I cannot say too much about it, the memories still feel so raw. But I now know that it was the moment I gave up the names they wanted from me.

Perhaps that is why it’s been hidden from me for so long. All the pain of those three weeks can’t compete with the shame of finally breaking and giving up my friends.’

He stopped again, chewing the end of his pen. Should he really tell Kahil about this? Might it only upset and frustrate him that he couldn’t be there to help. Should he wait until he returned home?

He would decide after he finished writing it.

‘Of course, I wanted you there, to talk to me, to reassure me. I even asked Miss Bennett to get the satellite phone working, I was so desperate to talk to you. Poor Karen must have thought I’d gone quite mad, waking her like that in the night.’

He winced as he thought about it. Could he trust her not to say anything to anyone? She had been a great help last night. As much as he regretted appearing so weak in front of her, he couldn’t remember her appearing embarrassed, or contemptuous. Just kind.

‘I made something of a fool of myself in front of her, I know that. But Karen is’

He chewed his pen again for a moment and continued.

‘someone I didn’t think I’d find so easy to get along with. I made the right choice going to her last night. Not only because she was the one who can work the satellite phone, but because she has some of the same qualities as you, Kahil. She’s a good listener. She, for all her loudness and you, for all your strength, you both have a gentleness, a kindness about you, that I appreciate in such vulnerable moments.

‘She sat up with me until dawn and we talked. It wasn’t the same as with you of course, but it helped me. So I don’t want you to worry about me, that I’m going through this alone. I have her help, strange as it seems to me to find a young woman like that such a source of strength.

‘I think my own strength is greater than it was too. Certainly last night I was distressed, but today I feel better than I would have if the memories had resurfaced even just a couple of years ago. I think perhaps the memories have come back now because I am stronger, because I can deal with them. That’s due in no small part to you and the help and support you’ve given me over the years, on the road to recovery.

‘The nightmare was upsetting, and it will take me some time to process the issues it’s raised. But I can deal with it. I know when I come home you’ll help me with that. I look forward to that day and hope we can at least speak on the telephone soon.

Your dear friend


He set the letter aside, putting a paperweight on the blue airmail paper. Later he’d decide whether to send it.

Chapter 5

The two Land Rovers drew up outside the gate of a barbed wire fence, that surrounded a group of low buildings. A prison. A couple of men with rifles stood in a gatehouse and one of them came over, looking deeply suspicious, when Madari got out of the vehicle and showed his ID.

“We’re here to make an inspection and speak to the prisoners. Here is my written authority.” He handed the man a document. “Please call your superiors and admit us immediately.”

The gate guard scowled at the ID and the authority. “You cannot come in,” he said. “No appointment.”

“I don’t need one. Read the authority. I’m permitted to make surprise inspections and talk to the prisoners without prior appointment. Please call your superiors and they will tell you to let us in.”

They’d done this several times now at other facilities. The guards never wanted to let them in and seemed to think they could make Madari go away again if they just scowled a lot and, in some cases, pretended they couldn’t understand any language spoken to them, and that they certainly couldn’t read any silly bit of paper. But Madari just kept calmly insisting they call their superiors. Usually the presence behind him of the blue-helmeted soldiers had an effect.

This guard looked at the vehicles and the soldiers then, without a word, turned away and went back to the guardhouse, where they saw him pick up a phone. A wire ran from the guardhouse up to the prison buildings.

“I say fifteen minutes,” Bennett’s voice came from behind him.

“Twenty,” Ritchie countered. “These guys look stubborn.”

“No,” Madari said. “Ten minutes. Word about us has got around. They know we won’t be put off.”

He glanced back at the car, at the smiling Bennett leaning out of the window of the driver’s seat of one of the Land Rovers. Her persistence in asking Madari if she could drive had eventually paid off. One of the guards, the one not on the phone was also watching her with some interest. Madari stepped back over to the vehicle.

“Bennett, I want you to stay with the vehicles after we go inside.”

She frowned now, losing her smile. “Sir, you need pictures. That last place when you had Geoff take them instead they came out terrible. I’m the photographer.”

“A men’s prison is no place for a young woman.”

“I’m not a young woman, I’m an officer.” Her frown cleared, to a conciliatory smile. “Anyway, sir, I’ve got all the lads here to protect me. Anybody even looks at me funny -”

“Lieutenant -”

“Sir, please.” She glanced at the others for a moment and then opened the door, forcing Madari to step back. The two of them took a few steps away from the vehicle, out of earshot of the men and Ritchie and Elimu. “Sir, I’m here to do a job, just like you and them. I… appreciate that you’re looking out for me, and I know it won’t be pleasant in there. But please, let me do my job.”

He sighed, unable to do anything in the face of the almost pleading look she wore. “All right, Lieutenant. But stay close to me in there.”

“Don’t worry, sir.” Her smile came back. “I’ll stay close and protect you.”

He rolled his eyes at that and was about to speak again, when the man who’d been on the phone came back over.

“Only one car,” he said. “Boss says, only one car.”

“Both cars,” Madari said. “Both cars and all the men. Read the authority.”

The man grumbled, glanced at Bennett, who scowled fiercely at him in return, then he went back to his phone.

“Fifteen minutes,” Bennett said, putting her sunglasses on.

In the end, it was nearly an hour. These people were more stubborn than Madari had anticipated. Or were buying time, and hiding evidence of course. Three different men, of increasing orders of seniority, came out to read the authority and then talk on the phone.

Meanwhile, Madari had Ritchie get the men out of the vehicles and do a bit of drill. Not that he was making any kind of show of strength, but he couldn’t expect the soldiers to sit sweltering in the vehicles.

Each man that came out of the prison he took the name of and wrote down the time. When they questioned that he said it was for his report, and that seemed to intimidate them more than the squad of soldiers at his back.

Finally the man in charge of the prison appeared himself, read the authority, argued for ten minutes about it and, since he really had no choice, finally let them in. The officers and men climbed back into the Land Rovers and drove through the gates and up to the prison buildings.

Madari left two men guarding the vehicles, and took the rest inside. They provided security for the officers, and carried equipment if needed, and, he had to admit it, as much as he liked to think he had an air of command, they backed up his authority.

The prison governor – to give him a title he could never earn in a more civilised country, Madari thought – led the way, Madari at his side and Sergeant Bekono right behind. Bennett, Elimu and Ritchie followed in that order, soldiers surrounding them and bringing up the rear.

Coming from the fierce sunlight outside – on a rare dry day – into the dim interior left Madari blinking for a moment, eyes adjusting. He knew it would be even darker when they got into the prisoner areas. A faint, but familiar stink of men crammed together in poor conditions came to him.

It was familiar mostly from his time here. His own prison in the desert had been almost luxurious compared to the ones here, despite some overcrowding. At least there the prisoners had worked together to keep it as clean as they could. But it evoked other memories in him too. The cell before the prison. The torture cell. He didn’t dare take a deep breath to calm himself.

The governor was talking about taking Madari to his office, no doubt for more pointless arguments, but Madari insisted the inspection had already been delayed too long, and demanded to be taken to the prisoner areas at once. The governor gave in, reluctantly, gathered some more prison guards, and led them into the cell blocks.

They walked down a concrete corridor, with barred gates at either end, men with big bunches of keys and carrying truncheons guarding them. He could hear the prisoners now, shouts, perhaps excited about visitors, anything to break the routine.

At the barred gate the inspection party stopped while the governor ordered the gate unlocked. The harsh strip lights in the corridor made it hard to see into the dark cell block beyond, but he could see there were bars on either side of the walkway down the middle. Men’s hands and arms were thrust through those bars and the walkway was narrow.

He glanced back at Bennett, who looked nervous, but when she saw him looking at her, put on a more determined expression.

“Stay in the middle of the path between the cells,” Madari said to her, quietly. “You two,” he said to the soldiers a little behind her. “Keep her between you at all times.” They stepped up to stand on either side of her rather than behind. Although he didn’t repeat the order to the soldiers guarding Elimu and Ritchie, Bennett didn’t look offended at being singled out. She gave a small nod of thanks. She might be determined that he should treat her equally to the men, but she wasn’t a fool either.

The gate opened and Madari steeled himself, shoulder back and stepped through. The stink was horrible in here, but he controlled his reaction to it, needing to stay calm and strong. He couldn’t give the prisoner governor any opening to rush Madari through the inspection.

Large communal cells lay on either side, as he’d already been able to see. A long row of them, dimly lit and each cell holding at least a dozen men, their dark faces barely visible in the gloom. The only light came from skylights above the walkway. There were strip lights between those, but they weren’t turned on. He stopped at once, the only one of the officers through the gate yet and turned to the governor.

“Turn on the lights.”

“We don’t turn them on during the day,” the governor protested. “It costs too much money.”

“I appreciate that. But I can’t carry out an inspection when I can’t see. Turn on the lights.”

The governor grumbled to himself in some language that Madari couldn’t understand, though could guess the words included speculation about Madari’s parentage, but turned to a guard and nodded. The man turned to a panel of switches on the wall, and one by one the lights down the centre walkway between the cells turned on. The noise level rose dramatically at this surely rare or even unprecedented development.

“Proceed,” Madari said, and the governor and his guards led the way down the cell block.

If the noise level had risen when the lights came on, it exploded when Madari’s party set off between the cells. Madari caught some of what the prisoners shouted when they pressed against the front of the cells, and plenty of it was about Bennett. He looked back several times to make sure she was all right. She still wore that determined look, but was being very careful to stay right in the middle of the path and to match her pace with the men guarding her. A few prisoners reached out towards her, but a harsh word from her guards made them pull back quickly.

It wasn’t only Bennett they reached towards though. Hands brushed against Madari’s arms as he walked at the governor’s side, close enough for them to reach. And not all of the shouts were obscenities, some were pleas for help.

He felt sick at how little help he could actually be here. His mission was to check for evidence of torture, not to inspect general prison conditions. They might indeed disgust him, but he couldn’t do much about them, except make his report.

Like so many things that he’d put into his reports, knowing that nothing could be done about them. Prison conditions, police unfairness, bandit activity, more reports of missing children. Though he’d told his officers not to allow themselves to be upset that they couldn’t save the whole country, at times he either raged, or wept for the misery of the people here.

Most of those people were innocents of course, and those here in this prison were not – though he felt sure many of them were innocent of the crimes they’d been locked up for. But even prisoners should be treated properly. It was a mark of a civilised country he thought. It wasn’t about the prisoners and what they deserved, it was about what kind of people you wanted to be. Of course, having been a prisoner himself, he could be biased.

They reached the end of the cell block and came out into another brightly lit corridor.

“Well, if you are finished now…” the governor began, but Madari shook his head.

“I haven’t even started. You will show me to a room where I can talk to prisoners and my doctor can examine them and my adjutant can photograph them. My second, Mr Ritchie will continue the inspection and any rooms he requires access to will be opened immediately.” Torture didn’t go on in cell blocks, Madari knew. It went on in small, locked rooms.

“I… I’ll have some prisoners brought to you…”

“No, we’ll select them at random,” Madari said. And of course, he’d make sure the word went out that any man who specifically wanted to talk to them should do so. “I’m also authorised to speak to any of your staff that I want to.” He looked steadily at the governor. “That includes you.”

Sweat gleamed on the man’s face under the harsh lighting.

“Do you practice torture here, sir?” Madari asked, surprising himself at the blunt question. He hadn’t asked that outright before.

“No!” The governor protested at once.

“Then you have nothing to worry about.”


Jahni wandered over to the buffet table, which is where he always gravitated to at parties. Especially ones like this, where most of the other guests were rich and, to his eye, idle.

A warm breeze wafted over him when he wandered out to the terrace, a drink in one hand, a pastry in the other, and looked into the courtyard, with its fountain and small flowering trees. Colonel Rahama’s home was beautiful, though he liked it more when it was quiet and not filled with chattering crowds of party-goers.

“Oh, Captain Jahni,” a woman’s voice said, making him turn. The Colonel’s wife stood there, with a young woman at her side. “Captain Jahni, I don’t think you’ve met the guest of honour herself. This is my grand-niece Amina.” The party was to celebrate her graduation from university, Jahni remembered.

Amina held out her hand to him and, taken a little by surprise, he popped the rest of the pastry in his mouth and returned the handshake, saying ‘My pleasure’ only after he managed to swallow the pastry. She smiled at that, he felt sure.

Madame Rahama – she used the French form, Jahni knew – looked around and then said, “Oh, I must see my husband about something. I’ll be back in a moment.” She hurried off. Jahni blushed. Could the old lady be any more transparent in her matchmaking intentions?

Amina was still smiling at him when he turned back to her. She had a friendly face, if not a beautiful one. Bright, intelligent eyes, and smooth, glossy black hair, that she wore uncovered. Aside from her uncovered hair, she dressed modestly in a long tunic and trousers in fine honey-coloured silk. A string of beads around her wrist made him look twice, thinking they were amber, like the ones he’d given Faris, but they weren’t. Just some kind of polished dark yellow stone.

“Ah, this is a nice party,” he said.

“My great-aunt does like to throw parties,” Amina said, nodding. “Though she surprised me with this one. I thought she didn’t even approve of me going to university. Especially not abroad.”

“Where did you study?”

“Paris. My family has a lot of connections to Paris.”

Jahni nodded at that. “Yes, the Colonel calls it his spiritual home.”

She laughed. “I don’t know about spiritual. The first thing Great-Uncle Shari gave me when he knew I was going was a list of his favourite restaurants and the names of the head waiters at each of them.”

Jahni laughed too, mostly at the thought of anyone calling Colonel Rahama “Uncle Shari”.

“I went to university in Cairo,” Jahni said, after a slight pause.

“Oh, what did you study?”

“Mostly loafing in coffee houses and sunbathing,” Jahni admitted, with a grimace. “But they insisted on me handing in essays about business studies once in a while.”

“Oh, how very tiresome of them,” she said, chuckling. “Business studies and then you end up in the Army?”

He shrugged. “Long story. I never expected to have an Army career.”

“And yet here you are, my uncle’s best officer and a hero.”

“I wouldn’t say I was the best officer in the regiment,” Jahni protested.

“Well my uncle would.”

That startled him really. He’d expect Rahama to name Madari, or any of the senior colonels his best officer. He was surely grooming Madari and perhaps some of the others as potential successors. But was ‘potential’ the important word here? The ‘best’ officer might be the one with the most potential, even if he had less experience than the others.

Did Rahama really have so much confidence in Jahni? That was both flattering and of course a huge amount of pressure. So much to live up to. That potential itself. The Colonel’s expectations. It would be terrible to let Rahama down, by failing to live up to his potential, or even… to destroy his own career.

“Captain?” Amina said. “Would you like another drink?”

He broke away from his thoughts and looked at her for a moment. Perhaps it was the light, but he thought she looked a little like Sophia, though younger of course, more unsophisticated, her hair and make up simpler. But yes, she reminded him very much of Sophia.

“Yes, thank you, Amina, I would. Please, call me Kahil.”

They walked back inside together.


The governor had plenty to worry about. Several prisoners made allegations of torture here at the prison or in police custody. Ritchie found some isolation cells with suspicious equipment in them, which Bennett took photographs of. She also photographed injuries the prisoners making accusations showed them, while the doctor inspected and documented the injuries. The guards they questioned were often evasive and defensive.

The worst part was that the prisoners who came with the allegations often thought Madari could get them out of here. Of course, he couldn’t. He could only promise that his reports would help to end these illegal practices and thank them for their bravery in giving evidence and promise them the prison staff here would not be told which men had come forward.

To look into their eyes when he had to make it clear he couldn’t free them was like looking into a mirror that let him see into the past. See his own old terror and desperation to escape.

It was dark outside when they completed the inspection. They walked back through the cell block the way they’d come in, and the prisoners around them were not shouting obscenities this time, but were quiet, though with stirs of voices here and there. Several of them were singing, something with harmonies, in a local language. Even Elimu didn’t understand it, just shaking his head when Madari glanced back at him.

Bennett walked behind Madari again, holding tight to her camera bag with its precious rolls of pictures. She had a small darkroom set up back at the lodge, and would spend tomorrow making prints to go with Madari’s report. She’d held up well during the trying day, full of other men’s pain and horror, but now looked tired and her eyes shone, as they left behind the men they could do no more for.

Her distress made Madari’s gut clench. They reached the vehicle and Madari saw everyone loaded aboard before he turned to the governor, who wore a look of relief that they were going. Madari offered his hand, taking the man by surprise and when he took it, Madari pushed backwards, forcing the governor to back up, away from the vehicles, away from the prison guards.

“Your cooperation is noted.” Madari said. “Your eventual and reluctant cooperation.”

“I had to…”

“You have two choices now,” Madari said, his voice low, and yet holding the governor’s attention purely by the tone in it. “You can go on like this and you will eventually be stripped of your job. I promise that I will make that happen. I’m sure yours is a lucrative position that you don’t want to lose.” He wasn’t referring to the man’s government salary of course, and the governor knew that, took on an outraged look. “Or you can start to clean up your act. That doesn’t mean hiding or destroying evidence. You know what it means. I suggest you begin immediately. You have a lot of work to do.”

He disengaged his hand, turned away and marched back to the vehicles. He climbed into the lead one and said, in a tired, hoarse voice.

“Move out, Private.” The driver started up the engine at once, and led the way out of the prison. Once on the road he put his foot down, perhaps as glad to get away from the place as Madari.

“What was all that about, sir?” Bennett said. “With the governor?”

Madari smiled tiredly at her. “Just a few words of friendly advice.”


“Just reporting all secure for the night, sir,” Bennett said, poking her head around the open door into Madari’s suite.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I’m just making some tea. Would you care to join me? Unless you want to get to bed.”

“Sunday tomorrow, I could stay up a bit longer,” she said. Madari let the unit relax a little on Sundays. Many of the men went to mass in the village in the morning. Bennett came in and closed the door behind her.

That wasn’t really proper, he knew. But it had become a habit, as these late night chats had become a habit. It wasn’t proper to have a young woman alone with him in his rooms, but since that night at Christmas, over a month ago now, she’d sat up late with him several times. She seemed to be able to tell when he wasn’t sleeping well and staying up late and would join him to talk.

It really was only to talk. He felt no temptation to make advances to her and certainly got no obvious signals from her that she expected or would welcome them. Of course, others might be more suspicious and he never mentioned the meetings to anyone. For the sake of her reputation as much as his own.

He made the tea while she sat on the sofa and picked up a book he’d been reading, in French.

“How many languages do you speak, sir?” she asked.

“Three fluently, a little of some others.”

“Arabic, English and French for the fluent ones, so what are the others?”

“I’ve been studying Italian the last few years.” He smiled. Usually from a horizontal position and with few clothes on. “And Farsi, though I think I’ve forgotten most of that.”


“It’s the language they speak in Iran,” he said, bringing over her tea and sitting down with his own.

“Well, I didn’t know that. You’re always teaching me something new, Colonel.”

“And vice-versa,” he said, chuckling. “Of course, most of the things I learn from you aren’t very applicable for someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few things that aren’t about beer!”

“I’m sorry, of course, sometimes you also talk about Australian Rules Football.”

“Only to interrupt Ritchie and the Brig when they’ve talked for three hours straight about cricket.” She grinned and Madari winced.

“Indeed.” He sipped his tea, looking at her. “How are you… holding up, Karen? This is a stressful posting. You know that you can talk to me if you find it hard to cope.”

“Oh, I’m fine, sir.” She smiled, seemed genuine. She didn’t appear the overly-sensitive type, which must help. Still, he waited, gave her a moment, and sure enough the smile disappeared and a more anguished look came into her eyes. “Sometimes it feels as if we’re not really doing anything though. That there’s nothing we can really do to help. Like that prison we were at last week. Did we really help those men?”

“We’re just the first stage of the help. Evidence gathering. Others will follow up on our work.”

She sighed and nodded. “I hope so. I hope the reports don’t just end up in some big black hole somewhere.”

“I won’t let that happen,” Madari said. “I have enough influence and know people who can make sure that won’t be allowed to happen.”

She smiled, cheering up at that. “I forgot you were a big shot back home.”

“Big shot.” He laughed at the word. “I suppose I am in a way, yes.”

“I’ll have to visit you at home one day, see if you’ve been exaggerating.”

“Oh, Karen, my dear, I’d be delighted to see you there. You would liven things up in ways you can’t even imagine.”


“Sir,” Ritchie said, standing at the open door of Madari’s office. “There’s some post for you.” He came in, carrying several letters and laid them on Madari’s desk. They looked as if they’d been through quite an ordeal to get here, possibly including being chewed by wild beasts. But he smiled, delighted when he saw an airmail envelope with a familiar stamp and the address in Kahil’s handwriting.

“Something official there,” Ritchie said, indicating a letter with a United Nations logo on it. Madari had been reaching for the letter from Kahil, but checked his hand and picked up the official one instead. He was on duty. Kahil’s letter must wait.

“Post!” He heard Bennett exclaim outside the door. “And I was starting to think the rest of the world had vanished and we just hadn’t heard about it yet.”

“A couple for you, Karen,” Ritchie said, making her come into the room and almost grab them from his hand. They’d be personal letters from home, all the official correspondence would come to Madari.

He opened the UN envelope and checked the contents. Acknowledgements for the reports he’d already forwarded on. Most were about their primary mission of course, but he’d sent others too, about problems the local people had reported to them. Including one problem that kept coming up more and more often now, to the point he was becoming disturbed about it. If this was happening at home it would be a huge investigation. The police would not rest until they’d stopped it. He knew from Bennett’s reaction that the same would be the case in Australia.

Now the letter said only, the UN would investigate “when resources are available.” Which meant never, he felt sure. Where were the resources to look into the disappearances of a dozen African children, when many more than that died every day on this continent from more urgent problems?

Madari slapped the letter down on the desk and stood up. He strode past his two junior officers, with a snapped comment about taking his coffee break, and stalked off to the lounge where they so often sat after dinner with the Brigadier. It was empty now and he rang the bell that called the staff and asked for coffee. The girl who took his order scurried off, intimidated by his thunderous demeanour.

She returned with Drummond in tow. He must have been in the kitchen. He dismissed the girl and poured the coffee himself, giving Madari a searching look when he brought it over.

“You look like a man wishing he was allowed to drink something stronger than coffee.”

“If I was a drinking man…” Madari shrugged.

Drummond wandered over to the drinks cabinet, picked up the brandy decanter and poured a measure into his own coffee. He held it out to Madari.

“A drop? Keep the damp out. I won’t tell a soul.”

Well why the hell not? He’d committed worse sins. What did it even matter any more? Madari held out his coffee cup and Drummond poured in a little brandy.

“Still early,” he said. “And we don’t want you drunk on duty. Sit down now.”

Madari wasn’t sure he could relax enough to sit, but a sip of the brandy laced coffee and he felt warm relaxation spread through him.

“Something upsetting you then, Faris?”

“The fact I can’t even follow my own advice for one,” he said, sighing and passing a hand before his eyes. “I told my officers to stay focused on the job we came here to do and not to try to save the whole country.”

“And you’re finding it hard not to try to do that yourself.”

“I’m so used to being able to make things happen, Clive. As Karen puts it, I’m a ‘big shot’ back home. I have influence. But here, my authority, my power is so limited.”

“It’s hard, I know. When I first came here, it took me a while to learn the same thing. Realised in the end I could help, but only here, locally I mean. Build this business, employ people, train them up, help them get educated. But that’s important. That… spreads out, you know. What you’re doing is important too. You know that.” Madari saw Drummond glance at his hands, a reminder.

“Yes. I know, and I’m trying to take some satisfaction in that. But sometimes, that’s not enough, when there’s so much other suffering.”

He sipped his coffee again and felt he’d like to sit in here, in the comfort of the soft leather wing back chair and forget it all for a while and let coffee fill his senses and just… daydream for the rest of the day. Daydream of hot, dry air, silent darkness, and thick, black hair he wanted to run his fingers through.

He shook himself as Drummond spoke again.

“Something specific brought this on? You got some post this morning.”

Madari sighed. For a bluff and crusty old soldier, Drummond was surprisingly perceptive. Which he took as a reminder that Drummond’s persona was all part of an image.

“Do you remember me telling you about how many reports we’d had about missing children in the local area? I made a report to the UN, but they can only say they’ll investigate when they have the resources available.”

“Same day Satan wears ice skates to work, I suppose,” Drummond said, nodding with a grimace on his face.


Drummond sipped coffee again for a while. “Does seem to have been a lot of those. Kiddies go missing sometimes of course, dangerous country this. Animals, mostly. My tourists love photographing chimpanzees, but those buggers are some of the nastiest.” He shook his head. “Never known this many go missing in such a short space of time though.”

“Do you think someone is taking them? A people trafficker?”

“People trafficker? That the modern name for them is it? There’s an older one. Slave trader.” He looked at Madari, must have read the horror in his face. “Used to tell us at school that slavery was abolished a long time ago. They were wrong. One of my security lads, he was sold to a slave trader when he was a boy. Escaped though. They’re made to work in mines, or taken to the city to work in factories. And worse things in store for the girls.”

“If this is a… slave trader,” Madari said, the old, horrible phrase sounding so strange to him, “then why are they now stealing the children instead of buying them?”

Drummond stood up and strolled to the fireplace, piled with dusty logs.

“You might think the people around here have it rough – and in comparison to you and me – they do. But in some ways, this part of the country is in fairly good shape. Lots of good growing land, enough to eat most of the time. Some decent clinics around. Schools. Most people here can feed their children. It’s when people can’t that they start selling them.”

“Then why would the trader even come here at all if the people aren’t desperate enough?”

“Perhaps it’s someone who’s locally based. Doesn’t want to move his operation, but needs ready cash.”

Madari looked at him narrowly. “You have someone in mind don’t you?”

“Well, you said my local knowledge would be a help to you.”

Madari sighed. “But, Clive, I just don’t have the authority to do anything about it.”

“Oh, you’re a sharp fellow. You’ll think of something. Now…” He sat down again. “Let me give you a briefing about one of the big shots around here. His name is Sefu…”

Chapter 6

“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.”

Jahni ran.

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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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 know.”

“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.”

“Oh yes?”

“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.

“Hey, kid.”

“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.

“Thanks, Murdock.”

“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.”

“Thanks, Murdock.”

“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.

Would it?

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.