Niger Delta, Rivers State, Nigeria
Crude oil soiled the road ahead.
Simon Ashcroft eased off the brake to avoid falling into crumbling potholes brimming with thick hydrocarbons. He felt no desire to lose control of his armored Land Rover.
Slowing to five kilometers per hour he scanned the terrain. He felt exhausted as he observed the details around him, just as he did each time he was out and about in Nigeria’s oil-rich, danger-rich, River State. The unseen threats were his primary concern. Hidden militants who had probably planned this trap, who might ignite the fuel as they drove through it. He saw banana plantations, jungle foliage, mounds of putrid garbage and the insane crisscrosses of overhead wires. It was the absence of people that worried him most.
“What are you looking for?” asked his boss, former Sergeant Ndulu Adebayo. From the front passenger seat, Ndulu also scanned the horizon. Like Simon, he was nervous.
“It’s too evenly spread,” cautioned Simon. “It forces us to drive through slowly. Perfect for an ambush.”
Simon turned to the former Nigerian Army sniper in surprise. “Is it what, sir?”
“Is it an ambush? You’re my intelligence officer and the executive officer for this client. I’m relying on you.”
Ndulu held two worn AK-47 assault rifles resting between his muscular legs, one weapon for each of them. As DevWorld Security employees their role was to protect their clients wherever they travelled in this West African country. The locally manufactured weapons may have been overkill, particularly when compared with the Glock 9mm handgun in Simon’s belt holster, but reliable fully-automatic military rifles could do a lot of negotiating for them.
Simon clenched his teeth. “I don’t know, Sergeant. I haven’t heard any chatter about anything like this recently. Not here.”
“If it’s lit, that’s a lot of oil burning around us.”
“I agree, but it’s diluted. It shouldn’t burn fast. And don’t forget, the fire ratings on these Land Rovers are good.”
Ndulu squinted, again scanning the path forward. “I guess we proceed with caution. The other route to the refinery adds at least three hours.”
“Yes sir,” Simon answered not moving.
“Then what are you waiting for?”
He looked again. Still no people to be seen. “The jungle’s pretty close. Perfect for an ambush.”
“More perfect if we’re motionless.”
Conceding his point, Simon eased off the brake and increased his speed to ten kilometers per hour. Fast enough to deter carjackers. Slow enough to maintain traction in the slippery sludge. His main concern was a spark, a fire, an explosion. Their armor would protect them from an initial blast and subsequent flames, but if they became stranded in a large slick no fire rating would be sufficient enough to save them.
The passenger in the backseat stirred from his midday snooze. “What’s the goddamn delay now?” demanded the waking oil executive, Rodney Langenham, their client.
Simon glanced in the rearview mirror. The pudgy, fifty-something Texan nursed the empty beer bottle he had insisted on stopping for three townships back.
“What was that Mr. Langenham?”
“Don’t you have ears? What’s the fucking delay?”
Simon felt tense, but resisted speaking the first sarcastic response that came to mind. There was nothing to be gained in being rude to Langenham, who was a powerful decision-maker from the oil company that was one of their best clients. His was a global corporation that secured billions of dollars in revenue each year from Delta Crude drilled from the mouth of the Niger River. With insurgents thick on the ground and the excessive levels of local poverty leading to high rates of crime, the oil company contracted DevWorld Security to protect their executives and senior managers when they were out and about. It seemed Langenham believed his executive-level protection status also bought the right to be rude. He had complained continuously since Simon and Ndulu had collected him from Port Harcourt International Airport earlier this morning. Nothing was how he wanted it to be. No problem could be fixed fast enough. No solution was ever satisfactory.
“It’s so fucking hot in here,” moaned the Texan.
“Our apologies, the air-conditioning’s broken,” explained Simon while maintaining his focus on driving them safely through the oil slick.
“Well, do something about it!”
“Like what, sir?”
“Winding down the windows would be a good start, for fuck sake.”
“The vents are working fine, sir,” said Ndulu even though he was sweating through his tight fitting military green t-shirt. “If the windows are down we can’t protect you from snipers.”
But the Land Rover’s interior really was hot. The air-conditioning had failed months ago and there was no money in their budget for repairs. Simon was glad that he had grown used to the hot, humid, equatorial environment over the last eight months. At least the fans blew fresh air in from outside, otherwise it would be as stifling as Langenham claimed it to be.
“Beer would cool me down. You boys got any beers up there?”
“Well that’s no fucking good, is it? I’m too fucking hot.”
Simon watched his knuckles turn white on the steering wheel as he tried to smile patiently. He could handle the insults and complaints. Oddly it was Langenham’s sweat that bothered Simon the most. The sheer volume of perspiration that drained off the man’s pudgy flesh smelled worse than the putrid garbage outside. He wondered if this was Langenham’s first time in Nigeria. Sometimes the fresh executives reacted with aggression, unable to handle the stress of such a culture shock.
“I’m so fucking thirsty. Hurry up and get me to my refinery.”
“We’re doing our best, sir. TIA.”
“TIA? What the fuck is TIA?”
“This is Africa,” Ndulu gritted his teeth. “Not everything works the way you expect it to.”
Simon chuckled to himself. The local explanation was more elaborate. Not everything worked the way ‘Westerners’ expected them to on this continent.
“What the hell do I pay DevWorld for, if nothing works?”
“You pay us to keep you alive, sir,” Simon attempted to lighten the atmosphere. “We seem to be doing just fine on that front.”
“Easy enough to say,” groaned the Texan, “while I’m alive. I won’t be around to complain if I’m dead.”
“Besides, what dangers are there out here? It looks fine to me!”
“There are plenty,” Simon grunted as he narrowly missed a pothole filled with oil. He eased off the brakes again to glide around the obstacle rather than hitting it hard and dropping a wheel and an axle into it, potentially stranding them. He performed the maneuver so well Ndulu and Langenham didn’t even notice him doing it.
“I can’t see a goddamn thing that’s dangerous. Just all those fucking bananas you tropical boys love. I’m sure you’re just trying to look like you’re providing value.”
As he concentrated on the slippery black road ahead Simon daydreamed of dumping Langenham out the car. He’d love to see the rude executive fend for himself, but if he did the Texan wouldn’t last out the day. Rivers State was a hotbed of disgruntled Nigerians. Many had taken up arms to war against the degradation of their river systems and the decimation of their previous fishing and agricultural livelihoods. The Niger Delta was a global disgrace, a gigantic cesspit of oil pollution the likes of which Simon had never seen anywhere else in his extensive global travels. Oil slicks on the roads were a micro-symptom of a massive, unmanageable problem.
The two-way radio crackled. “Ashcroft?”
“Yes, Sergeant?” Simon recognized Naas Visser, his second-in-charge. The grumpy South African called from the second of the two DevWorld Land Rovers a hundred meters behind their position. Visser’s team provided back up and were on hand if more clients required transportation to other locations.
“You distracted by the fat asses of Nigerian women?”
Simon rolled his eyes. “We’re working, Sergeant. What do you want?”
“This is MEND territory, or didn’t you know Bro?”
“I know, Sergeant. And I’m ‘Sir’ while we’re working.”
“They might be watching us.”
“I’m aware of that. Just follow my lead.”
Growls echoed across the radio waves. “Very well, Sir!”
The group that Visser had referred to, known locally as MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, was a local Rivers State militant group that patrolled this region, with a reputation for murdering foreigners and kidnapping oil executives. Many labeled MEND as terrorists, including all the local oil companies and the Nigerian government, and practically anyone else in the region with power and money. But Simon saw them as impoverished people who felt betrayed by the oil companies and left with no alternative but to fight for their dignity. Because Simon worked for one those companies, he too was a MEND target. Everyone in the three DevWorld Land Rovers were targets. Visser was correct, MEND could have set a trap and they might be driving right into it.
Committed now, he had no choice but to keep driving, slow and cautious.
“You poephol, Ashcroft, move fast I tell you!”
“Visser, cut the chatter —”
Langenham laughed from the back seat. “Can’t you control your own men, white boy —?”
“You’ll kill us, Ashcroft —” Visser shouted over the Texan.
“Shut it!” Ndulu shouted louder. “Visser, you fucking forget that I’m listening to all this?”
“No, Sir,” responded Visser expressing surprise. Clearly he had forgotten Ndulu was with Simon in the lead vehicle.
In the rearview mirror, Simon could see Langenham’s grin stretch from cheekbone to cheekbone. The Texan was clearly enjoying this.
Simon looked ahead, hoping that the end of the oil slick was near. He could focus on the current threat or he could focus on the failing dynamics of his team, not both simultaneously. And yet his mind turned to the team that Ndulu Adebayo had forged eight months ago. Ndulu was the company director of the Nigerian arm of DevWorld Security and Simon’s direct manager. Simon was the executive officer managing this protection contract, directing operational strategies and providing intelligence. Sergeant Naas Visser was supposed to run operational details, or at least that was the theory. Problem was, every time Simon gave an order Visser would disagree, citing prior experience as his justification for non-capitulation. Too many orders ended up as negotiations. Some of those negotiations resulted in decisions that were dangerously close to suicidal. Simon could be facing such a decision right now.
He heard a window being wound down.
“Mr. Langenham!” Now his eyes were off the road, focused instead on Langenham and the executive’s need for fresh air. “Sir, the safety glass and body armor protects us from gunfire, but not with the window down!” He used the drive side controls to put the window up but Langenham was fighting him, winding it down again.
“I don’t give a fuck, Ashcroft. It’s too fucking —”
The rapid drumming of bullets impacting their vehicle was as sudden as Langenham’s head disintegrating into a pulp of meat, grey matter and skull fragments. Blood exploded like a mist. It painted the interior of the Land Rover and its occupants faster than the human mind could comprehend.
Before Simon could react several of the enemy materialized from the undergrowth. Black balaclavas protected their identities. They dressed in dirty white shirts, many in red pants. MEND had a uniform of sorts, even if it was mismatched. They fired AK-47s and MI6s assault rifles. Bullets instantly scarred the windows in white, misty scratches.
He accelerated into the oil slick, not caring about hidden potholes, as more bullets impacted into the bodywork. The friction of the high speed projectiles could ignite the slick, and with the window wound down . . .
More automatic fire rattled around them. Only the armored plating saved him and Ndulu from injury. Simon tried closing the window from the front seat controls, but the paneling was shot out. The ballistic glass was jammed in a half open position.
“Fuck!” exclaimed Ndulu. “Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!”
Simon hit the accelerator too hard. He felt everything go black as they went into a spin, turning and turning again, until the four wheel drive hit a ditch. They came to a halt with a jarring thud.
His head spun.
His skull ached with near-migraine like pain.
Had he been momentarily knocked unconscious?
He spotted advancing MEND soldiers and realized he had no time to worry about what might have happened.
His problems were only just beginning.