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A TROJAN AFFAIR - The S.K.A. at Carnarvon

By Michael Smorenburg All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Drama

Chapter 32

“Looks juuus’ like home t’me,” Gabriel Broad drawled in his Texan accent. He was scanning out over the dry flat scrubland to the distant hills.

His small delegation had touched down on the new hardtop runway outside Carnarvon an hour earlier than expected. This put the welcoming committee half an hour late for their arrival.

The hour difference in arrangements had been caused by Uganda’s time zone an hour ahead.

“I do apologize for our lateness, Pastor,” the Dominee had said in the most impeccable English he could muster, “but we was set for your arrival at eleven and only got a call after you’d touched down. We made a scramble the fastest we could to get here.”

“No need for the ‘pology, y’all. That would be m’own fault,” Gabriel declared, feeling magnanimous for the rare admission. “Jus’ didn’t think t’ check if y’all had more than one time zone. But this place is beauuudiful,” he didn’t want to dwell on his folly, “just like m’ boyhood in Houston.”

“We like it, it’s a heavenly land,” Gert agreed. “How was your flight?”

Craaamp’d”, Broad complained, his hand patting the vastness of his ample gut, “But Bud-Junior here he was a-swimmin’ in his seat weren’t ya’all just, Bud. Sure hope ya’all can get him a proper meal t’ fill him out.” And he began to laugh at his own joke at Bud’s diminutive size; his jowls—flanges of loose flesh at his jaw—dancing a merry jig to his grunts of laughter.

Bud remained silent. He rarely spoke or offered a facial expression.

They looked an odd pair; the preacher—a barrel with legs—and Bud his understudy, a telephone pole topped by a Stetson.

They both wore expensive suits—rattlesnake boots for the preacher, running shoes on his aide.

The Dominee had also donned his finest suit for the occasion and he looked rather like an emaciated penguin.

The farmer Willem Bauer, Oom Karel the Bushman’s employer, had his best suit on too though it was years since he’d worn it and the waistcoat buttons didn’t come close to engaging their job.

Jan de Villiers was kitted in his blue safari suit. He’d made it a moral decision; he didn’t like Americans. Thirty years earlier as Kommandant he’d felt betrayed by the Americans in the Angolan war when their promised invasion through Zaire had not materialized and he’d lost men to the diplomatic miscommunication—or that’s what his superiors had told him the issue had been. Regardless, he was determined to hold the grudge and made both men pay when he shook their hands.

“Y’all got a fine strong grip there, son.” The preacher said, massaging his hand when he got the crumpled thing back from Jan.

Jan was ten years the Texan’s senior but was fifteen his junior in health and vigor; his blanket dislike of Americans aside, he didn’t appreciate the man’s manner from outset and so had punished him most severely.

The runway lay eight kilometers south of Carnarvon, just off the R63 highway to Loxton and Cape Town. The flight path approach had put them directly over the SKA compound.

“You must have had an early start?” Willem kept up the small talk. At heart he was a peacemaker and wanted to support the Dominee who had said this meeting was important to their struggle.

“Up ’t three,” Broad confirmed. “We cleared thru y’r Johannesburg customs and came straight on down… planned t’ fly past Cape Town first t’ coll’ct young Andy, but he’s up a-ministering t’ a new congregation somewhere hereabouts. He’ll truck in under his own steam later I guess.”

“Yes Andy will be here at noon,” Gert confirmed.

Fact was, Andy Selbourne was not ministering at all; he was busy acquiring a new church in the town of Kimberley four hours drive to the North East of Carnarvon, but there was no need for Broad to divulge that to the Dominee if the man didn’t already know it.

“Now Bruce y’all sure you wanna run on foot t’ town?” Broad asked of his pilot.

Bruce Matterson had been Broad’s pilot of the private Gulfstream jet for the past three years. He was a keen runner and had announced to Broad that rather than accept a lift into town he’d jog the distance to loosen up from too many days cooped in the cockpit and hotels. They’d take his bags in the vehicles and he’d follow directions to the guesthouse.

“It’s a straightforward road I scoped it from the sky, it’s not real far,” Bruce replied, “so I may do an extra lap somewhere. Don’t you worry ‘bout me, I enjoy gett’n lost if that’s possible here. Oh… no wild animals to worry about in these parts I read?” He added as an afterthought.

“No four legged animals,” Jan had scoffed implying that two legged predators might abound.

The men all shook their heads at the notion of running, it seemed madness to them.

“I’m personally not one for a-runin’,” Broad proclaimed, polishing his belly again. “Sometimes I think ‘bout exercise but if I sit m’-self down a’while the feelin’ passes.”

There was consensus from the hosts.

The reason for the run was motivated by more than Bruce declared—he simply did not relish spending more time than he had to cooped up as he’d been for days on end with Broad and Bud.

With two preachers and an understudy meeting for the first time, he had a pretty good idea from past experiences that they’d drone on for an age; a pissing match to see who had more Faith.

In his association with Broad, Bruce had endured countless of these engagements and they wore on him. He simply did not care for, or about, religion. Whenever he could he avoided the company of those ‘afflicted’, as he termed it. But Broad paid well enough for him to shut both his mouth and his mind when it was unavoidable.

The preachers climbed into Gert’s freshly washed aging Toyota sedan while Willem rode separately with Jan who had privately confirmed his disquiet; “I dislike them both just like I thought I would. The young one won’t look you in the eye… I don’t trust him. And the fat one talks too much, thinks he’s better than us… condescending bastard. I never question, but I think the Dominee is making a grave mistake with this.”

“I’m sorry for y’r tragedy,” Broad was saying to Gert as they pulled away. “I understand y’all lost a good man.”

“One of the best,” Gert inclined his head a moment. “It’s a big loss to the community.”

“Amen t’ that,” Broad said and maintained a few moments of respectful silence.

“These are difficult times,” Gert picked up the conversation, “A lot of change… We don’t like change here.”

“Change is opportunity, boy,” Broad suggested. “Y’all gotta take the right att’tude to it. Look, it’s brought us here; you an’ me. With me… t’gether… you can be stronger than you gonna be alone.”

Gert nodded agreement but he suddenly didn’t feel it. He certainly didn’t like being called boy even if it was cultural. He’d seen Jan also recoil when it was said to him.

“Together…” Broad’s words kept echoing through Gert’s mind.

This is what it was coming down to; this was real, these men were here, in his car and overbearing; and Gert didn’t like how he was beginning to feel.

His character was to go it alone and apart. His culture had a legacy of being apart from all others for so many generations that the inclination was ingrained in him. He reveled at being a pastor out on the fringes of civilization where he could avoid the politics of the cities and other Dominees in the more densely populated areas. Out in the forgotten areas he could be king of his own domain and answer only loosely to the Synod—the governing body of his church.

For a lifetime he’d dutifully followed the core of their prescription, but he’d been left to run his territory like a private fiefdom. They knew it and they let him be, trusting his judgment.

As he drove onward, his mind worked it over and he found himself second-guessing his decisions; this affiliation with the Americans might be a bridge too far. He was, he admitted to himself as the low-slung town came into view, on dangerous turf—holding talks and committing to paths without sanction or even informing his superiors.

And if Gert was honest to himself, Broad had cunningly sold this course to him over the months since their conversations had begun. It was not easy to admit it to himself and the realization of being sold-to made him uneasy; it emasculated his self-esteem.

But it was there… the nagging voice that now wouldn’t let up; Broad had convinced him to keep the plans to himself and he now deeply regretted being mute so long and not sharing the details and magnitude of his plans with even Andre—his most trusted advisor.

The more he thought about it the more uncomfortable he became, grudgingly admitting to himself how Gabriel Broad had smuggled his mind, had made him dance to an unaccustomed tune.

In this instant of self-honesty and sudden doubt he felt overwhelmingly lonely… isolated.

Thinking about all of this made him uncomfortable, made him feel like a weak man; and weak men were despicable to him, so he tried to put it aside.

“I hear your con’gation’s less than three hundred now?”

“Some days,” Gert parried.

“And y’r tithe?”

“We don’t tithe,” he blocked.

“We gotta teach y’a ‘bout church business. What’ya doin’ t’ increase the flock?”

“God takes care of that.”

“What ‘bout your negroes? You though’ta bringing them in?”

“Our church is open.”

“Y’all can run separate services t’ keep from trouble a’makin’ with your folks.”

“Our people are accepting.”

“What’s a Sunday collection bringin’… in your money?”

Broad’s barrage of questions as they drove onward were unrelenting… too probing, moving too quickly for Gert’s liking… too focused on cash; constantly seeking with devious triangulation to uncover the details of matters far beyond the brash man’s right to know. Gert felt his hackles beginning to rise again; his mood descending into a defensive laager.

“Y’all seem reticent, friend. Don’t mean t’ offend; just tryin’ t’ get t’ know one ‘nother… And… man—is this place beeeeudif’l hey Bud? Just heav’nly. Y’r sure got a peach of heav’n here preacher!”

“We are very proud of it,” the compliments brightened his gloom.

He knew he was being prejudicial and he tried to reverse the emotions. The first minutes since they’d first shaken hands out on the runway were not enough to judge these men and build rapport, he reminded himself. He was grasping little of what was being asked of him; his mind a flurry of contradiction; These guests were being outrageously rude, immediately quizzing and demanding so much of him so early and so vigorously—did they not realize…? He was not their man.

“Perhaps…” he thought, “I must put my foot down now… sooner than later.” But to come straight out with a challenge like that would go against everything the hospitality of his culture stood for.

It was a sea of endless conundrums; the small town preacher far out of his depth with no hint of experience to navigate his way out of the territory, so he went silent; the brooding inclination of his people.

Then a better plan struck him—he’d go on the offensive. He’d choose the topics and drive the questions.

“I understand you have significant oil interests?” Gert inquired of Broad.

“Fam’ly business,” Broad confirmed.

Gert was pleased to see that the man shifted easily to responding. Perhaps, he thought, he could take the reins back and keep control after all.

“…It pays the jet ‘n ministry,” Broad was still rambling. “But I do enjoy it too. It takes me t’ int’restin’ places. Just ahead of Uganda we were in Saudi, met with some towel head, Faizel El-something-or-other. Gonna sink some wells and take an interest there, but I don’t trust ‘em. Don’t trust those sand-niggers at all.”

Bruce; back at the airfield; saw the meetings in Saudi, the trip to Kenya, and now this detour down South, quite differently to the account his employer was describing to the Dominee in the car.

He habitually kept opinions to himself, though doing so was an exhausting yet necessary task. The meetings in Saudi had been vastly taxing on his will to remain silent. All of the cultural ceremony and personal posturing of the wealthy man he served, and the wealthier men his employer had met with, tedious; each man pretending to compliment the other while trying to get a leg up on him.

Had the Sheik known what Broad thought of him and his religion, the meeting would have been off before it started… the plane would never have been allowed to land. Indeed, Bruce was more than a little concerned for his own head remaining attached to the rest of him amidst the gross insults and opinions Broad regularly made only just out of earshot, in uncomfortably close proximity to itchy-fingered Islamic zealots.

“Bunch of misguided goat herders,” Broad repeatedly called them, “but somehow their Satanic Gaaawd has fixed it for them t’ be camped on a whole lake o’ black gold. The sooner we smoke the lot of them the safer the world’ll be.”

He’d said much worse of the Kenyans whose backs he’d recently slapped and hands he’d warmly shaken and lined with cash; ugly and bigoted utterances Bruce would prefer to forget.

“They’re tools for spread’ng the Grace ‘a Gaaaaawd, son,” Broad had kept telling him. “Th’ only value these jungle-bunnies’ bring, is t’ incite the cultural war‘t home. That’s what Gaaawd has told me he wants, son… Outlaw the fagg’ts here in Africa and God’s people back home will sit up ‘n take notice.”

Now it was South Africa and using the White Tribe, as Broad referred to the Afrikaners, to achieve yet other objectives.

Here he found himself, Bruce, talking to an imposing and handsome representative of the White Tribe who’d introduced himself as “JJ.”

“She’s sure a beauty,” JJ whistled with approval at the Gulfstream Jet. “She’s the G650 if I’m not mistaken?”

“That’s the one,” Bruce agreed with vast pride.

“First I’ve seen in the flesh,” JJ’s face beamed. “Mind if I take a closer look?”

Bruce gladly agreed. Anyone who complimented his bird was automatically up and past the first rung of friendship.

JJ had come to the airfield to check over his charted plane in which he’d flown his mom and sister up from Cape Town, making sure it was fueled and ready to go if the unscheduled meeting that had suddenly come up in Johannesburg materialized.

On his way into the field, he’d been surprised to pass Dominee Gert who was leaving the airfield with an obese looking stranger wearing a Stetson hat inside the car, and then the realization struck him that it could only be the American delegation in from Kenya. They evidently hadn’t recognized him in a borrowed car.

“Not just from Kenya,” Bruce went on to elaborate the Saudi trip.

They’d been scrutinizing the plane for the past few minutes and had settled in the lavishly appointed lounge to share a cup of premium Arabic coffee that the Sheik had included in his parcel of ritual gifts he’d handed over when they’d touched down.

During the past few minutes, into the flow of conversation Bruce had injected searching questions and established to himself that JJ was entirely without a religious affiliation. In his experience, the keenly religious always advertised their viewpoint in the first moments after meeting. In the past several weeks, he’d been cooped up with nothing but dogmatists, and he was keen and relieved to at last get a break and be in the company of someone likeminded.

“Jeez, no,” JJ confirmed. “I grew out of that nonsense when I left this place ten years ago.”

Bruce nodded knowingly.

“What’s Saudi really like? Like we imagine?” JJ quizzed.

“It’s as unpleasant as you’d imagine,” he confirmed. “Hot, sticky… dusty. Feel like you want a shower every few minutes. The women… what can I say about the women…? Nothing to look at for sure—then again, wearing bin bags over your head is just never gonna be flattering.”

JJ was starting to like the man.

“You gotta feel for the average person there, though. They’re like us, just trying to get by but their system is screwed up. It’s like the dark ages. The ones on top are deranged.” Bruce hesitated, “But I must tell you… what goes on, what I see… it’s bewildering… I don’t get these types.”

“I can only imagine—I can’t deal with them anymore. The willful ignorance is what gets me.”

“Ignorance? Try full-on cognitive dissonance; complete inconsistent thoughts… I mean, complete and utter disconnects between their fictions and realities. We met with this Sheik,” he pointed at the coffee, “and he had a whole entourage of geology advisors. For the first half of the meeting Broad and the Sheik preened and congratulated one another on the other’s Faith, and how misunderstood they each were of one another… how similar they each reckon the two opposing Faiths are… just a big circle-jerk... It’s complete bullshit of course, they hate one another.”

“Seen it myself,” JJ agreed.

“Oh… it was spectacular… They went on and on, pretending to fawn. Then they edged closer to the business of oil and spent another age talking about how, a few thousand years ago, their invisible sky-daddy had put all this oil in the ground as a present and gift to them… I mean personally, for them… you can’t understand the egos.”

“Oh… I have a pretty good idea.”

“Well… this got them into the carbon emissions debate and their take on it.... Evidently it would be terribly rude if they did not accept their Heavenly Father’s gift and thank him by burning all the oil they can lay their hands on.”

“Nothing self-serving in that at all of course…”

“Nothing at all… And then, poof… they both seamlessly switched tack; it was down to the real business of yields and ratios and the quality of the oil in the ground. Suddenly they were conversing in eloquent detail about the deposits. I mean, intricate details about the strata; the Permian, Jurassic, Carboniferous, Devonian... staggering. Without a hint of shame or irony they shift from fairytales to profits achieved through the stark realities of the very science that they reject.”

JJ topped his coffee mug but Bruce refused more as he kept explaining.

“One minute they were talking thousands of years and some sky-magic and the next they were bandying about hundreds of millions of years…. the intricacies of geologic processes… and I just sit asking myself ‘how?’… How do you keep both of those contradictory ideas in your head and believe both of them?”

“Have you never asked? In private, I mean?”

“No point. My job is to fly, so I fly. I just endure the meetings when I’m invited and hold my tongue.”

“I couldn’t do it,” JJ said. “I just couldn’t do it. Does your man know how you feel?”

“He might suspect but I keep it low key. I bow my head at the frequent prayers before meetings and meals and use the time to think about important things.”

“And if he finds out?”

“As long as I shut up and do my job, probably nothing…” Bruce said, and then added. “Now I think about it, if the plane’s ever in a crisis… gonna crash… I think he’d rather I’m not distracted with praying; he’d want me getting on with the mechanics of all of it—so there’s the hypocrisy again.”

“He’s a big oil man? Gabriel Broad… I don’t really follow the oil game… I know he’s a preacher. ”

“Well, then his PR is working a treat,” Bruce suggested. “If you speak to him, he’ll tell you that the oil is only there to fund his ‘missions’… But, not true, not true at all. Oil’s a very traded market and he’s on the periphery with it. Selling religion gets him through back doors… and its cash cow in it own right. As it stands oil is lubricant for his empire, but what he takes out of his mega-churches would make that Sheik blush with shame. He’s into all sorts of things I’d be wise to forget about… hence this leg of the trip.”

The statement puzzled JJ, but he let Bruce talk and determined silently to return to the odd statement, “…things I’d be wise to forget about… hence this leg…”

“In my opinion… for what it’s worth… I think Broad’s a bad businessman—that’s why he’s nowhere in the formal markets; all his deals fall out of bed. He’s too aggressive in the deal… leaves nothing on the table for the other guy. It’s in backwaters that he can dominate; it’s where he outmaneuvers everyone… he gets the politicians in his pocket.”

“Interesting…” JJ said. “And this leg? In Africa?”

“The Kenya trip was with select parliamentarians, gee-ing them up against homosexuals. You know—he was the catalyst getting the death penalty pushed through into their law…”

“They reversed that,” JJ reminded him.

“Sure… but he’ll still got mileage out of it.”

“What’s his game?”

“We wing in… he slaps some backs, greases some palms… gets them riled up. I sat through some of the meetings and it blew my mind. Broad had some outrageous videos on his tablet… where he gets the stuff, I can’t even imagine… Evidently homosexuals ‘eat poopoo’ and rub it all over themselves. He had videos of it, and these guys just took it all onboard, got themselves into a lather over it.”

“Astounding.”

“Well, now you know the Red-White-&-Blue source and inspiration for it.”

“I never doubted it. But what these clowns don’t get is that over here, in Africa, that kind of evangelizing turns real-serious, real-quick. Our locals don’t picket, they go on the rampage… they kill anyone they suspect.”

“You’re wrong… Broad understands perfectly well, he just doesn’t care.”

“Disgusting,” JJ agreed. “And here? Carnarvon…?”

“Oh, Carnarvon’s just one part of our South Africa leg. We have meetings with your Parliamentarians. I probably shouldn’t mention this, but you don’t seem likely to hijack us... there’s a big suitcase of dollars in the safe on the plane, to… you know....”

“Persuade?”

“Yes, suggest to those in authority to see things Broad’s way.”

“Hard dollars?”

“That’s the tip of the iceberg—these days he’s mainly using Bitcoin—cyber currency… totally untraceable… safer. But in Africa dollars still speak loudest.”

“Shew! So what’s the flight plan?”

“Cape Town, Pretoria and back through here. Then Nigeria—interests there too—mega-churches… Then back to the States via Germany.” Bruce caught himself, “But… my mouth’s running away with me. I’ve been cooped up too long,” he cautioned himself aloud.

“Talking’s a risk,” JJ agreed openly. “I’m no threat to you, I’ll lay my cards on the table with yours.”

“Your cards won’t save my job or neck. You’re a very likeable guy,” Bruce admitted, “…had my mouth running itself.”

“I’m intrigued. Your information’s fascinating… It’s timely… there’s a madness here in this town right now that I’m trying to figure out, and what you’ve just told me hints at what I’ve been missing… details I couldn’t know.”

Bruce fidgeted with a loose thread on the hem of his shirt sleeve, his forehead creased, weighing thoughts;

“I don’t know why I trust you,” he declared. “I don’t know why I should trust you, but I do. Maybe I’ve been locked into this bullshit world for too long, but I feel like I’ve got to get this burden off my shoulders to a stranger not in it.” Bruce was studying JJ, trying to figure himself out, “I must be nuts...”

“I don’t want to compromise you. Tell me what you’re comfortable with, I won’t pry… Tell you what… I’ll tell you what I think is going on and you can just ignore it if it puts you in a position.

“Reckon you have a theory?” Bruce challenged.

“One’s forming. I’m interested in all kinds of things—this new global evangelism intrigues me… The tie-up with the local church… what’s broad getting out of it? A publicity stunt?” JJ didn’t want to blunder in this delicate dance; he was working carefully to avoid spooking the man.

Bruce raised an eyebrow and a barely perceptible nod to the questin—it indicated limited agreement; its lack of enthusiasm suggesting that there was much more to it;

“The Answers in Genesis crowd… Broad is affiliated to them?” JJ took it further.

“In bed with them… and others. Like… really in bed. They’re his front.”

“Ahhh… This spear head in South Africa and Carnarvon is to broaden the fight they’re putting up over evolution and science in general, States side?”

He nodded, “And…?” Bruce encouraged.

“And they’ll make the news?”

“Why? Why’s making the news important?”

“Attention… a spotlight on them?”

“Look… Outwardly, Africa’s the newest and most lucrative growth market for evangelism; South Africa’s a gateway, a strong base. Announcing a mission here… the press that comes with it… legitimizes frequent return visits… no-questions delegations, easy visas, unchecked movements.”

“I’m sure… and it grows their base… sort of an economies of scale”

“Also… influence. They’ve got a lot of traction now in your government—pushing to pass laws that religion influence in the legislature, slowly closing the rights to talk against it.”

“Have you heard of Andy Selbourne,” JJ was connecting dots very quickly.

“We were supposed to collect him in Cape Town to bring him up here, but he’s busy buying up a church not far from here, so he’ll drive in later.”

“Buying a church?” JJ was surprised at that.

“Yes—expanding his little piece of Broad’s empire. Traditional churches that are in decline of membership, they’re under financial pressure; the youth turning away from old-fashioned religions. They want something more with more pizzaz… something… sexier. This is fertile ground for evangelism with its flash and upbeat razzmatazz… You have a little town down here called Swellendam? And another called Oudtshoorn.”

JJ agreed, “Yes, up on our east coast—the Garden Route, why?”

“The main NG Churches there are gone, did you know that? Swallowed up by the Evangelists… and, all financed by…?”

“By Broad? You’re kidding?” The pieces falling into place.

“That’s what Bud-Junior is here to do, oversee the terms of surrender.”

“What?” JJ was bewildered.

“Sorry—you probably missed the man, he was in the back of the car, he’s the other party with us. Looks much younger than he is. His name is Bud-Junior, travels as the understudy to the preacher, but he’s a lawyer, you’ll never hear him preaching. Broad constantly reminds him, ‘listen and learn’—it sounds like they’re talking preacher speak, but it’s business; code for when Broad has seen something he really wants Bud to take note of. Very cloak ‘n dagger.”

“Jesus…” JJ exclaimed, “quite a tangle.”

“More tangled than you imagine.... Do you have vested interest here? In the town?”

“Not anymore,” JJ declared, and admitting it hit him in the gut. “I grew up here, but have grown far apart from it. I just lost my dad last week and my mom and sister moved to the city with me. I was just up for the funeral and extended my trip to sort out the estate.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Bruce said. “But you’ll be relieved to be out of here with what’s going to go down.”

“Have you any idea how Broad and Gert, our preacher here, became acquainted?”

“I know exactly how. Broad wouldn’t have given your preacher or this little town the time of day, but with the SKA coming… well… the potential for PR in the long run... As the town becomes a center for science, he wants a hand on the lever… but there’s more to it…”

Shadows moved behind Bruce’s eyes—he was calculating something; JJ could see there was something he wanted to share—something that begged to be shared, and he was assessing if JJ could be trusted.

JJ picked his moment and prompted him;

“Sounds like more than evangelism going on…?”

“…Broad says he just wants a stake in the ground here… but… Well… anyway… stuff I’m, uhmm… not supposed to know… much less talk about.”

Those phantoms were eating at the man and JJ was certain that, with patience, Bruce would crack and reveal them… JJ could see him fumbling for a new tack, trying desperately to divert from the secret he was straining to hold back.

“If you’re from here,” he was saying, “you’ll know the church attendance is dwindling… losing money.”

JJ knew it and agreed.

“It’s a drain on the parent church. Like any business, they’ll only carry it for so long. Broad knows it’s ripe for acquisition, just like those other two towns. Just like the deal Selbourne is cutting right now. They targeted your preacher here, baited up a hook for him, stroked his ego a bit… spoke a lot of bullshit of common goal… told him to keep it to himself and not elevate it to his superiors or share it with anyone. They got him believing that he could be a hero if he was seen to take the fight against this internationally recognized scientific initiative, this great Satan, single handedly.”

“And he swallowed the hook and sinker?”

“As we speak, they’re probably sinking the gaff in. These guys are laughing at him. It’s small potatoes for Broad.”

“So he is being used? The Dominee… the preacher… the folks here being… used?”

“Sure… Used.”

“And Selbourne?”

“A loyal dog. He’s helping build the empire and thinks he’s a partner in it.” Bruce contended.

“So he isn’t in the inner circle? He talks like he is. I’ve seen some video—on about his ‘meetings with partners abroad’. Claims he’s having all manner of ‘high-level’ talks.”

“They always do, don’t they...? Elevate their own self-importance and imagine they’re in the inner circle. No… Selbourne is oblivious. He’s a stooge. He’ll run himself ragged to bring any dusty corner for his master. Him, you… they… you’ve no clue of the extent of all of this.”

As Gert had swung off the highway he’d seen the first of the placards up on streetlight poles. He caught a glimpse just too late to read it, but every second pole repeated and heralded the forthcoming debate he had only just announced at the tail end of Andre’s funeral; and he read more and more of the detail as he passed each pole.

It spelled out the venue—his own NG Church—and the participants; Broad himself and internationally famous evolutionary anthropologist Alok Singh—Al—Andy Selbourne and Marsha Martin, the famed astrophysicist.

Gert had been urged by Broad on an earlier phone call to announce the debate but assumed that he would be the main participant and hand-pick an opponent, preferably holding the debate in his native Afrikaans. He’d confirmed to Broad that he had made the announcement when they’d last spoken two days earlier.

Broad saw the shock written on Gert’s face so he took the initiative, pointing to the posters; “Our PR folks been good’n busy,” preemptive strikes always-beat defensive responses.

“You arranged this?” Gert was outraged and it showed.

“We talked ‘bout it, m’ boy.” Broad ignored Gert’s look of outrage and stormed directly onward, “I get jobs done, don’t h’ve time t’ waste with chic’n sh’t jibber-jabber—so it’s ‘ranged f’r this Sat’day night, the media invites’re out, we’ve some ‘mpressive cov’rage lined up and the oth’r side’s ‘pponents are in ‘greement already. I must fly t’ Cape Town for meetin’s, but’ll be back f’r the ‘vent.”

“You did not tell me about this,” Gert’s mind was reeling from the blow, his voice betraying that.

“What was there to tell y’all, son...? Y’all said we could use the church and Y’all agreed to ‘nnounce it. I didn’t ‘ntend to burd’n y’all with arrangements at a time of sorrow as y’all have been through. Y’all did y’r job ‘nviting the good folk o’ the town and I’d like t’ thank y’all by havin’ y’all chair the ‘vent.”

“This is not how we’d planned it!” Gert blurted.

“There w’s no ‘we’ t’do the planin’, son,” Broad pointed out. “I plann’d it. Y’all is just t’provide the venue. I mean y’all no disrespect, but this ’s a tad over the head of a small-town preacher like y’self. These character’s we debatin’re int’rnationally acredd’ted and I doubt y’all’d survive the first round. I’m a pro… do’t aaaall th’time. Y’all ‘ll see it’s the bett’r option. Y’all will be act’lly be reliev’d t’not participate.”

The impertinence of the man slammed Gert down a slope, into a dungeon of surging wrath. His mind shut down on him and he did not know what to think, much less what to say.

He drove the rest of the route to the guesthouse in a mute world of voices inside his head, while Broad pointed with oblivious indifference to inanities of topography and architecture around the town.

Gert dropped his guests without more than grunts and monosyllables escaping the shroud of his icy rage.

Broad seemed unmoved by the frosty mood. He slapped Gert heartily on the shoulder and assured him that there was “nothing to be emotional about”, it was “all just business”.

“All just business!!” Gert repeated bitterly to himself as he drove away. “This is not business, there is only God’s business, and this doesn’t sound like God’s business to me,” and his mood grew yet more bleak and despondent.

He began to dread the forthcoming hours when he would have to fetch the men after they had freshened up; he’d have to pretend to be a good host—to discuss plans in earnest that he now grudgingly admitted to himself, were not his plans—plans he was not even part of.

To extinguish the voices and seek guidance, he withdrew to his church to pray and to ponder what calamity he had unwittingly inspired.

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