Chapter 34 Release
“Well my old partner, we have to get Precious away from those two sophisticated narco thugs. If we don’t, at a minimum they will get this whole area under their control, at max they get that, and do serious harm to Precious. Unfortunately the latter is the most likely outcome, because she is head strong enough to resist their efforts to make her sign over her mineral rights.
This is a critical situation that only we can deal with. There isn’t time to call in the police, and even then no crime has yet been committed. She is going with them of her own free will.
Remember how we took care of things so many times together in the past. It was always urgent, an urgency which never failed to rob us of sleep, constantly tired until the shooting started and the adrenalin kicked in. So suck it up and get over it old buddy, we have one more last operation to perform together. Save your sleep for tomorrow. This time, hopefully there won’t be any shooting, at least not from us. Although I’m pretty sure those two are armed. Alan said that Escobar’s men always packed side-arms. These two will probably be doing the same.”
I sat listening to the sounds of the night, with a buzz of adrenaline scratching at the windows of my mind, wanting to burst in with a flood of fear and euphoria.
“Our first problem is how to get to Hippo Lodge. The pontoon has shut down for the night. Also, we are on the wrong river bank to knock on their doors and get its crew going. Our options are either wait until morning and see if we can get across to Hippo before the plane leaves, or head down by boat as soon as we are ready.
Moses thought for a while, “If we go by vehicle we would have to confront them on the airfield,. If they are armed there won’t be much we can do. However, if we go by boat we have more time, and can catch them while they are sleeping for a sneak operation.”
“Yes.” I agreed, “The problem with the boat is motoring on the river at night with all its obstacles. But it is the better option. It will give us more time, and if we do it right they won’t be able to take advantage of firepower. We can get in close and out before they have a chance to start shooting.”
We both sat staring at the fire..
“Here is what we’re going to do. ” I said.
“Hippo lodge is about thirty kilometers down stream from here.
If we motor slowly we should average ten kilometers an hour. We will drift as we get close to hippo so they don’t hear our approach.
We should allocate three hours to get there.
We can land a few hundred meters upstream. I will stay with the boat and you can move in to do a reconnaissance to see if there is a night watchman. I doubt there will be. Like here, it is too far out in the Bush for them to worry about human thievery. If there isn’t any you can move down to the dock, flash a light, and I will move in with the boat. Otherwise you will have to come and fetch me, and we can pick the best escape path, before we start checking the chalets. A half hour should be enough to search.
If I remember they have 6 chalets. We will split them between us, starting with those closest to their chitenge. They will be the most likely occupied. Initially we should do a non-intrusive search. Listen outside for sounds of breathing or snoring. Those two Latins are in their 40s, at some stage they will make male sleep sounds.
If after half an hour we haven’t figured out Precious’s chalet, from the sounds inside, we will start intrusive searches. You can pretend to be a night watchman.”
I grinned as I said, “You look unsophisticated enough for that role. “
“If one of the Latins wakes you can say you have come to warn that there is a lion on the prowl outside. Tell them to stay inside until you give the OK. But be quick about it. In, out and on to the next chalet before questions can be asked.”
Once we find precious, we need to immediately identify ourselves. Shine a flashlight on your face so that she can recognize you quickly. If we are checking separate chalets, give a low whistle so either I or you will know we have found her. We can converge to help.
As we both know from surprising people in Angola, Initially she will be startled and confused. We must feed her a positive narrative. No telling her that she has been kidnapped in a setup. No saying that she is being rescued. It would upset her even more. She may even resist us, because her tendency will be to go with the two thugs, who she will still believe are her saviors. Our narrative will be there has been a change of plans. Tell her that her benefactors called Mustafa on satellite phones to say the charter will be leaving from Lufupa further downstream. They needed another boat, so we have been asked to farrier down. We can say the two Latins have already departed. Being nice guys, they let her sleep some more while they get things organized at Lufupa. We will urge her to be quick, because it is late. If she still wants her lucky break she must hurry, hurry big time. We will count on a person’s tendency to keep moving towards their positive hopes. Once we are away we can let her know what is really going on.”
“What if things go wrong?” Moses asked. “As we both know, few plans survive the first meeting with the enemy.”
“We will improvise as usual.” I replied. “I will forcibly take her to the boat,. At the same time you should go to the far end of the Lodge where the road heads towards the airfield. Make a lot of noise and shining of your flashlight, to draw attention away from the river. I will then take the boat back up to where I stopped to let you off. I will wait for you to join me there.
Either way, once all of us are in the boat, we will motor about three clicks upstream and wait for daybreak on the opposite bank. It will be too dangerous going against the flow of the river in the dark. That will take more throttle,. I don’t want to hit a rock with the propeller and break it. Especially when we go through the rapids at the confluence.
You know the motto, as old as the bible, ‘by deception they made war’. That’s how they got her into this mess, and by deception we will get her out.
Moses poked at the embers of the fire with a stick. “Yes you’ve recited and use that enough times for me never to forget it.”
I rose and headed for the water spigot to clean my mug. “”Given the timing allocation, we will leave at one in the morning, which should get us there with enough time to operate in the dark, then have the light of dawn to let us see when we will need to get away fast.
Go and get some sleep. I will check the boat and wake you when it is time to go.”
Moses looked at me. “When are the others leaving? Also tomorrow morning?””
“You are like a dog after all!” I exclaimed in mock surprise. Even though neither of us were feeling particularly jovial, I still used the chance to pull his leg. “The scent of a bitch in heat is more important than sleep.”
“But no, apparently they are only leaving the day after tomorrow. So you will still have a chance to howl at the moon.”
The half-moon would be rising around the time we got to Hippo.
We drifted past our own lodge. There was no need to rouse suspicions. Who knew if Mustafa and the Latins had satellite phones. Once well downstream I hauled on its chord to start the engine. Aided by the flow of the current, our progress was rapid. The only time we used our flashlights was as we approached and were swept through the rapids at the confluence of the Lunga and Kafue. We both picked out the big rocks as best we could. With Moses calling out warnings I maneuvered the boat with sharp switches of direction to get between the big surges squeezed up by the boulders. Despite this we were still bumped and knocked about by a few of the lurking monsters beneath the surface.
Sure enough the sliver of the moon showed half a finger above the horizon as we approached Hippo Lodge. Cutting the engine I use the oars to edge the boat towards the shore as we drifted closer. I could barely make out the strut of the lodges decking when I pushed the prow into the bank. Stepping ashore after Moses, I took the tether rope, with its small anchor and set it higher up the bank.
“Good luck.” I said softly, as Moses quietly felt his way up the steep bank and disappeared into the shrubbery and darkness.
Twenty minutes later I saw the double flash downriver. The signal that all was clear. At least there was no night watchman. Pushing the boat back out into the current, and using the oars, I scold down to where Moses waited. He lifted the anchor off the prow deck and pulled the tether to set it so the boats nose held against the bank. Stepping ashore I silently joined him on the lawn above the river’s edge. The moon was now slightly higher which made it easier to move around. There wasn’t a need for flashlights.
I had been to the Lodge many times and knew that the chalets stretched out downriver from the chitenge deck. “I’ll take the first chalet, I whispered to Moses, you take the next.”
Moving quietly to stand outside a window of the first chalet I listened. After a few minutes a muffled sleepy cough came from within, a man’s cough.
I moved across to where Moses was standing, still and silent in the dark moon shadows next to a chalets window. Even with his mouth centimeters from my ear he was barely audible as he whispered,, “No sounds.”
“OK, keep listening.” I whispered back. “I will check the next one.”
As I stood and listened I heard a faint voice from the direction of the staff quarters.
“Damn!” I had not taken into consideration that some staff would rise earlier than usual to make coffee if the guests were leaving very early.
I could not detect any human sounds from within the chalet.
Moses moved across to me and whispered, “There is a mug on the table outside the chalet I’ve just been to. It smells of tea. So I doubt it was used by one of the men. I think we should risk a check inside.”
Dawn was an hour and a half away, and once again a faint voice came from the staff area.
Moses also added in a whisper, “I’m pretty sure, but since the first chalet is one of the men, they would have precious in between them.”
“OK, check it out, I will stand guard outside. We have to get going. It sounds like the staff are rising earlier than expected.”
The door open with a soft Creek and he tiptoed inside. I moved to the doorway and watched. The mosquito net drooped down over a bed. When he flashed his light the brightness of its mesh precluded any identification of the sleeping figure inside.
Moses than panned the light around the room. On the bedside table I spotted a strand of snail shells .
Quickly I moved inside. “I’ll handle this. Go get the boat ready.”
I lifted the mosquito net, and shook the shoulder of the figure under the sheets.
Precious startled awake. Momentarily I pointed the being of my flashlight on my face, until I saw her flash of recognition.
At the same time I lifted a finger to my lips and issued a ‘shhhh.”
She loudly exclaimed, “What are you doing here?”
“Shhhh,” I again admonished, “be quiet there is a lion lurking right outside. “
This quietened her substantially, “What are you doing here?” she asked again quietly, but with a touch of annoyance in her voice.
“We’ve come to take you to your charter,” I said. “Mustafa got a call from your friends to say that the charter had been changed to leave from Lufupa. He asked if we could ferry you downriver. So here we are.”
“What?” She exclaimed incredulously.
“Precious, we have no time to waste, we have to get going. Put on some jeans and a sweater and your shoes. I will pack all the rest. We absolutely hadve to get going if you are going to make it in time.”
I started throwing her stuff into a bag, as she reluctantly donned the jeans as ordered.
“Where are Luis and Alex?” She asked.
“They already left in a boat from this lodge” I said as I led her past the first chalet and on towards where Moses was already sitting at the stern of our craft, with the start chord in his hand.
“Your pals were not all that concerned that you make it to them in time or not.”
“Hey.” Precious said suspiciously as she recognized who it was. “What’s going on. What is he doing here?”
It was getting lighter. Her dressing and getting ready had taken 15 minutes longer than I had anticipated.
I could make out a figure exiting the third chalet and walking out onto the lawn towards the river.
“Hey, let me off! Precious exclaimed loudly. “I can see Alex!”
Dow-n river the man stood for a moment, looking towards us in surprise, then turned and dashed back into his chalet.
I shoved Precious into the boat and threw her bag and the anchor in after her. It landed with a clatter onto the floor. I sprang aboard and shouted to Moses, “Let’s get oout of here.”
Precious stood up and tried to scramble back out. But the gunning of the engine and our acceleration out into mid channel toppled her backwards so hard that she fell back into my arms and I held her tight as she tried to scratch at my face..
“Go, Go! I said urgently to Moses, “That son of a bitch has run back to get his heat.”
Precious was furious. She screamed at us, “Let me out, you idiots!”
Moses powered in reverse into midstream. Then flicking the gears to forward opened up full throttle, just as a familiar crack was followed by an equally familiar thump.
It was the snap of a bullet breaking the sound barrier over our heads, followed a fraction of a second later by the thump of its shot.
Precious struggled to escape my grasp. She attempted to pull herself up while making lunges for the side of the boat, as if she intended to jump into the river and swim to the bank.
She angrily slapped at my wrists as I continued to restrain her, while loudly exclaiming what was the matter with us, and what did we think we were doing.
That changed as soon as the crack of the second shot went over our heads, quickly followed by another. Finally the sounds had popped the baloon of her anger.
Suddenly unsure of herself, “What is that?” She asked.
“Your friends are shooting at us.” I muttered as I ducked lower and pushed her head down.
Very quickly she stop struggling.
Moses had the throttle wide open and the boat was skimming at a plane over the water. Every second we were presenting a smaller and smaller target to the shooter. I prayed that the river had come up high enough for us to avoid the rocks beneath the surface. A minute later I indicated for Moses to slow down. We were a few hundred meters upstream, and in the dimness of dawn, the likelihood of the shooter hitting any of us with a sidearm was low.
With a trace of fear in her voice Precious asked, “Are you all crazy?”
“Yes!” I said, “I don’t know why we’re doing this for you? Maybe it’s because we like you.”
I smiled at how she flicked her handed me dismissively and pouted her lips.
“Even Moses, let alone me, is too old to go around risking being shot to rescue damsels in distress.”
I couldn’t resist saying, “what was it that you once told me? That I’m too old for you.”
“No I’m being serious.” Precious glared at me, “would you please tell me what’s going on.”
I shrugged and was about to give her an explanation when Moses interrupted.
“Precious, I’m taking you somewhere, and show you something which will explain it better than any of us.”
“Where?” She pouted.
“Just sit quietly. It won’t be long now.”
I looked at him curiously, I was not expecting this.
An hour later, looking back south west along the path of the river, I saw a small twin engine aircraft rising away into the sky.
Hopefully our terrible twins were aboard.
Now with the sun up over the tree line, Moses gingerly steered the boat through the rapids. It was easier this time. We could pick our channel, and there was more control over the speed of the boat as we powered against the current between the rocks.
Once past the rapids, Moses edged our path up stream to tuck under the eyes of the cliff which balefully looked down on the confluence, with the ridge of the dyke lifting its head and spreading back behind it like the hump of a hunchback.
It wasn’t much further, where the ridges slope eased back down into the flats of the valley, that Moses turned the boat into a little gap between some trees. He gestured for me to jump ashore and set the anchor.
Tilting the outboard engine out of the water, and standing up, he also motioned to Precious to disembark.
“Ti yenge,” he said. “Let’s go! I have something to show you.” After a short pause, “actually it is not something, it is someone.”
I looked at him carefully to figure out if he was joking. His air of secrecy was uncharacteristic.
“Don’t worry!” A slight smile appeared on his face, “very soon everything will be clear.”
He turned and began to lead the way, ducking under the outstretched branches of thorn bushes, around the sprawl of bigger shrub clumps, and under the spreading branches of some trees which grew big in the little gullies eroded into the slopes of the Dyke.
In certain of the steeper spots we had to watch our footing. It was where the Rocky gravel of the soil, loosened by the recent rains, slipped under the rubber of our bush boots.
I realized there was only one place he could be taking us. But why?
The cave is not very auspicious. Not being deep, and looking out upon a relatively non-descript vista, I wouldn’t have chosen it as a likely site for a nganga to practice his magic. But the topography was what nature provided.
Thus it was not so much the cave that filled me with surprise, rather it was the figure of the old grey haired man sitting in its recess. He was crouched flat footed on his haunches, with the crowns of his knees caught in the crooks of his elbows, giving the impression that his long thin body was bowed forward. His hunched shoulders dipped his head until the crane of his neck thrust out his chin to where, as he sat thus, it almost touched his crossed forearms.
As we approached I could see he wore the same old camouflage uniform as was his dress on our previous impromptu meetings. He hardly moved when we came to a stop a few meters to his fore. Only then did he deign to look up, more so with the lifting of languorous, almost disinterested eyes, than the raising of his head.
I opened my mouth to say something, but I felt the faintest restraining touch on the back of my hand from one of Moses’s fingers.
Precious nervously held back behind us.
The old man dropped his head back onto his arms, and with one arm outstretched made a gesture for us to be seated.
As they lifted to look at me I was transfixed by some of the deepest and cmost ataract clouded eyes I’ve ever seen.
“I have been expecting you.” He said,“ever since I got your message when you visited.”
“My message?” I’m sure he could detect the incredulity in my voice. “Old man, I don’t know you, and I have not sent any messages.”
“Ahhh, but you forget.” He said quietly in a deep gravelly voice. “My brother was with you at the Mlimo cave. The Mlimo knew you were searching for them. That is why they sent my brother to meet you. They listened to your heart. The Mlimo considered what to do. They said you were looking for me. I have followed their instructions.”
I was nonplussed as the memory of that meeting came back to me.
“Sit!” He ordered. We obliged him, sitting opposite and cross legged, Precious still behind us.
“Aaaahhh suwa.” The old man shook his head. “I have been watching you. Watching and seeing if you can be trusted.”
“Old man, what do you mean can you trust me? Who are you to give me marks?” Once again I felt Moses’s cautionary finger press, this time on the side of my leg.
The old man ignored me.
“As you know, from my dress and what my brother told you, I came to these parts long ago. I was here to build the airfield for the Chimurenga. For N’Kome’s men. It was where they landed the supplies.
The old man looked at me, “Do you know where that airfield is?
I nodded, I knew of the old defunct, over grown landing zone.
The old man cleared his throat and spat into the dust at his side. He picked up a twig lying beside him. He scratched some dirt over his spit of saliva as he withdrew into himself for a few moments, before continuing.
“I met the Russian there. We have helped each other for many years.”
“Are you still working with him?” I asked.
The old man stopped scratching at the dirt and looked across at me. “Yes, and No.”
He looked down into the sand at his feet, “but I will not work with the Indian and his friends.”
He lifted his head and pointed with his chin up over my shoulder, to where Precious crouched behind us.
“They want to play with things they know nothing about. They want to mess with that woman that sits back there. The one who is being guarded by the spirit of her father. The spirit of Mushala.”
He scratched the ground again and said, “I watched you and your man. I saw that you were genuine men of the Bush. I let your man follow me. So I could test him,. I played tricks with him, just like I tested you. Even though you are a zungu you have some spirits helping you. I don’t know why, or where they come from. The only thing they have said is that you have come home, that you will stay here forever.”
The message from the Mlimo, was that I was not to thwart the spirit of Mushala, or the spirit of the white-which, for hers was the most powerful spirit of them all, a good spirit.
The Mlimo said she had sent her son to sort out the issues here, and he would bring his mzungu helper.
It was better to trust them than the outsiders, the oracle at Inake told my brother.
We sat for some minutes saying nothing.
The old man lifted his head. Making a hacking sound, he sucked in his gaunt cheeks, and spat into the embers of the fire, so that his saliva hissed. A tendril of steam curled into the air like a question mark.
“You can go now.” He said, “I have work to do.”
Not looking at us, he made a dismissive motion with his head.
“I must go up to the village and undo the damage that those outsiders are trying to do with your scout.”