Simon watched through the bullet scratches across the windshield as the outside world continued to spin. MEND soldiers advanced in close formation as South-East Asian terrorist groups had trained them to. These men were dangerous paramilitary foes.
Shaking his head Simon tried to regain some clarity, and managed to lessen his pain a little at the same time. He counted his foes. At least three MEND soldiers in close proximity.
Again Simon attempted to close the back window, but it remained stuck. If he could close it, they would be protected, from further gunfire at least. It had been risky to speed through the slick with a chink in their armor. After eight months in this constant, high-adrenaline state of mind, he was feeling depleted physically, mentally and emotionally. Worse, his mistakes were costing lives.
Ndulu raised his AK-47, flicked down the safety and pulled back on the charging handle to chamber the first round. “Four o’clock, Ashcroft. Six insurgents, advancing fast.”
He’d only seen three.
Simon took his rifle, chambered the first round and flicked down the safety.
He heard a ‘thunk’ on the backseat.
Both men turned to see a Molotov cocktail ignite the oil that had been splashed across Langenham’s corpse. Black smoke soon filled the cabin, quickly consuming all breathable air.
Coughing and spluttering, both men clambered from the vehicle in seconds.
The thick black clouds pouring from their doors saved Ndulu’s life, providing him with cover as he sprinted from the advancing enemy, heading straight to the protection of the jungle foliage.
With the armored Land Rover between him and their attackers, Simon returned fire. Two soldiers fell suddenly as crimson wounds ruptured across their chests and arms.
“Oh, shit!” Simon swore, realizing that he had taken, not one, but two lives in quick succession. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck NO!” He hadn’t wanted to shoot, but he had felt no choice. It was him or them. It would have been better if it were neither of them.
The back window of the Land Rover exploded with a searing burst of gathering flame and a ’whoosh’ like the blast of an aircraft engine.
He was knocked forward by the shock wave but managed to stand his ground. Then he realized what he was standing in.
He was up to his ankles in thick black sludge.
“RUN!” he yelled in case Ndulu was nearby.
He turned and fled, ploughing through the jungle, pushing past broad leafed plants and thick grass.
Intense heat warmed his back as the road lit with flames, incinerating their four wheel drive and any MEND soldiers caught in the open. The explosive forced knocked him forward, sending him face down into the wet mud of the Delta tropics.
Coughing and spluttering, he was soon on his feet again and clambering forward. He shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. He felt sharp pains race the length of his back and neck. While he ran he tried to check for bleeding wounds and burns. Miraculously he seemed unscathed.
“NDULU?” he cried out, concerned for his boss’s wellbeing.
“Over here, Simon.”
His boss materialized from the thick vegetation, covered in soot and scratches. He was laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re as black as me, white boy.”
Simon touched his face. His fingers came away with thick smears of soot and mud. “Fucking TIA.”
Both men grimaced as they checked their surrounds, weapons ready. No MEND soldiers were to be seen anywhere. Simon suspected the fireball had either scared them off, or incinerated them. Clouds of billowing black smoke suggested that the damage had been extensive.
“You were right, it was an ambush, Ashcroft.”
“Yeah, I can see that now, sir.”
“Well we’re lucky to be alive, but I’ve lost a client and the fucking Land Rover.”
“I’m sorry about that, but the idiot —”
“I know what he did,” Ndulu interrupted. “Langenham was the fucking idiot. I just hope the oil company sees it the same way, otherwise . . .”
“I told him,” Simon growled, knowing that he might take the blame for this, regardless of whether he was actually to blame or not. “He knew. He fucking knew. I covered it in his induction. ‘Maintain integrity of the vehicle at all times’.”
“Are you sure you told him? Do you have proof?”
“Of course I do, sir. I gave the bloody induction. He signed the bloody attendance sheet.” Simon scanned the landscape. They had stumbled some distance from the road. All he could see was jungle foliage. “Sir, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“Agreed.” Ndulu lowered his weapon. “We better check on Visser and his team. See if they escaped the fireball or not.”
“Yes sir, good idea.”
The enormity of the last fifteen minutes played on Simon’s mind as they marched through the mud. His concern was not having been caught in a gun battle, or even having lost a client, but in his inability to assess the situation quickly enough. He’d get a grilling from Ndulu later, but he wasn’t sure how he could have handled the situation differently. Of even greater concern was the fact that he hadn’t known an ambush was planned for today. Intelligence gathering was, after all, his specialty.
To add even further to his desolate feeling, three more deaths by his hand were added to his conscience. There was already a long list of the individuals who were no longer counted amongst the living because of his actions. He had murdered too many foes in his past, and regretted each one. Despite having only ever killed in self-defense, or for the greater good as defined by his employers, he hated what his actions said about the kind of man he was. He liked to think of himself as honorable and compassionate, but how could he see himself that way when he committed such acts? Feeling conflicted, he knew he wasn’t the same man he had been when entering the intelligence services all those years ago.
Ndulu’s voice pulled him back to the present. There he was again, unable to focus on the problems at hand. He was exhausted and barely recognizing it.
“We need to move, now!”
They reloaded weapons as they marched. There were no visible signs of MEND soldiers tracking them but they moved quickly regardless. The skies were thick with toxic smoke making visibility difficult. They reached the road in five minutes, several hundred meters beyond the oil slick where fires were still burning.
Simon spied Visser and three local DevWorld contractors gathered on the crumbled tarmac. Two intact DevWorld Land Rovers idled like purring cats, suggesting that Visser’s team had made it out before Simon’s vehicle had been attacked. Each contractor carried a company-issued AK-47 or M16A1 assault rifles. One contractor pointed his weapon at three MEND soldiers lying face down on the road. Visser was the only man moving, walking the road searching for hidden threats. His movements didn’t seem controlled. He looked to be strutting.
“Visser?” Ndulu yelled from his hidden position in the jungle.
“Yes, sir?” the South African’s response was unenthusiastic. Yet he raised his weapon ready to use it.
Naas Visser was not an attractive man, with thinning hair barely covering his scalp, pale skin and a wizened face speckled with grey hairs through a three day old growth. He was all muscle though, fit and strong for a man in his mid-fifties. He was a career soldier whose service highlight was working with the ‘Recces’, the South African Special Forces Brigade. He was organic proof of what living rough in the bush and fighting dirty wars for prolonged periods could do to a body; both ruin it and preserve it at the same time. He was like an animated Egyptian mummy.
“Got any cigars back there?” Ndulu asked.
“Yeah sir, plenty of fucking cigars.”
Ndulu looked to Simon and both men nodded. If Ndulu was compromised he would have asked for whiskey. If Visser was compromised, he would have answered that he had none.
Simon and Ndulu stepped from the undergrowth joining their comrades.
“Sir!” Visser saluted only for Ndulu.
“At ease, Sergeant.”
The South African sneered when he turned to Ashcroft and swore in Afrikaans. “You poephol, Ashcroft! You fokked this. You fokking didn’t listen to me.”
“Drop the attitude, Sergeant.”
He pushed Simon in the chest, sent him backwards a few steps, bruising his ribs. “Fok you!”
“Stand down, Sergeant,” Simon countered, ready to strike with an upper cut into Visser’s kidneys should he need to control the man who was rapidly losing his cool. “I could have you sacked for insubordination. What’s with the attitude?”
Visser snarled, wiping tears from his eyes that he didn’t want Simon to see. “The dwankies fokking murdered Piotr, didn’t they?”
“Piotr’s dead?” shouted Ndulu. “I thought he was off having a shit or something?”
“Dead?” echoed Simon, mentally kicking himself for not noticing the Russian’s absence until now. He had assumed Piotr — the other ex-special forces soldier in their team — was reconnoitering their area on the lookout for further MEND soldiers encroaching on their position. “What happened?”
“The stupid bastard got shot up, didn’t he? These dwankies filled him full of lead.” He pointed to the three prisoners lying face down on the road, their hands cuffed behind their backs.
“Where’s Piotr’s body?”
Visser pointed his rifle towards the flames down the road. “Barbequing.”
Simon shuddered. Another casualty, this time one of their own. Piotr had been a good soldier despite his crassness and a distinct mean streak. Piotr’s death explained Visser’s aggressive, rebellious attitude. The two were as close as anyone in the outfit ever got. Simon had never witnessed Visser manage his emotional responses well, and with his friend dead, he would be an over-boiled pressure cooker. Simon would let the insubordination slide for now. The man obviously knew no other way to express his grief. But he couldn’t accept such insubordination forever.
“Didn’t Langenham make it either?” Visser grumbled.
Ndulu shook his head, indicated the distant burning wreckage of his Land Rover. “Idiot wound his window down. Took a bullet to the head.”
Visser shrugged. “He was an asshole, sir. Now Ashcroft will have two lots of paperwork to complete.”
“That’s enough, Sergeant,” disciplined Ndulu.
“Hey, wait a sec,” Simon had gone to get a better look at the MEND soldiers. Each couldn’t be more than fifteen, and the youngest was probably twelve. “They’re just boys.”
“No they ain’t, Ashcroft, they’re fokking terrorists.”
“No, Visser, they’re kids. Release them immediately!”
“You’ve got to be fokking kidding me? After what they did to Piotr?”
“Now, Visser. Do as I say.”
“Shut it with the attitudes, you two.” Ndulu looked from Simon to Visser and back again, before resting his gaze on Simon. “Ashcroft, I’ve lost a contractor, a client, a good man and vehicle today. That’s going to cost me a lot of money.”
“I’ll lock and load them then sir!” Visser snapped his fingers, sending the junior DevWorld contractors into action. The junior soldiers roughly lifted the MEND boys and dragged them into the prisoner cage on the back of the second Land Rover.
Simon tightened his fists, furious that his orders had been countered. The whites of the boys’ eyes were prominent as they were dragged away, leaving no illusion that they were anything but terrified. He didn’t judge them for their fear. Protocol dictated they be handed over to the Nigerian State Security Service — the dreaded SSS — or the Nigerian military who moonlighted as security forces at all the major refineries. Once in the State’s hands, whether secret service or military — it didn’t matter which — their fates would be sealed. The only certainty was torture and a degraded form of death. Simon worried that MEND had forced these boys to fight, ultimately leading to their incarceration. Even if they had volunteered it was only because they saw no other options to live their lives.
Simon turned to Ndulu. “This isn’t right, boss.”
“Perhaps I should just shoot the dwankies now, sir?” Visser spoke before Ndulu could. “For what they did?”
“Hell no!” Simon retorted. He said to Ndulu, “Sir, we can’t hand them over. We definitely can’t shoot them.”
Ndulu shook his head. “We have to hand them over. They are my evidence that we were attacked. With them I might just be able to convince the insurance companies to replace the Rover without raising my premiums.”
Simon shook his head. “You’re better than this, sir, and they are worth more than any insurance premium.”
“You want to pay for a replacement out of your pay?”
“Sir, you know I can’t afford that.”
“Neither can I.”
Simon’s teeth ached, a symptom of clenching his jaw too long. His headache was again almost as bad as it had been immediately after the car accident. “You shouldn’t do this, sir. They’re just kids. You have children, you know how wrong this is.”
“Okay, okay,” Ndulu shook his head, “for now we take the boys to Port Harcourt. We’ll work out what to do later.”
“But Ashcroft, you better come up with a new solution to salvage all this. With Langenham’s death we could very well lose our contract. You’ll both lose your jobs. I need to go to our client and explain how we’ve fixed this.”
Simon reflected on today’s many casualties. So much pointless loss for . . . what? Nothing. He needed to make their deaths worth something. He needed to formulate a plan. Otherwise, he felt certain he wasn’t going to like the man staring back at him in the bathroom mirror tonight.
“Sir,” Visser spoke up interrupting Ashcroft’s thoughts. “Our intelligence boy here will know the local MEND hideouts. We go to them and take them out.”
“No!” Simon spoke without thinking. “Not to take them out. To negotiate a cease fire instead.”
Visser snorted a laugh. “How the fok do you expect to do that, Ashcroft?”
“Shut it, Sergeant,” Simon looked to Ndulu before Visser could protest. “Sir, you keep telling me everything in Nigeria is negotiable. You say it’s all a matter of money and the right go-between.”
Ndulu made a clicking noise with his tongue against his teeth while he considered Simon’s proposal. “You think we can negotiate an outcome for us, bargaining with the boys’ release?”
“I do.” Simon stepped close so only Ndulu would hear. “Sir, can I have a word?”
Ndulu was not impressed but he stepped a dozen meters from the team with Simon so they could speak privately. “This scheme better be good Simon. You didn’t know about today’s ambush yet you are supposed to be my intelligence officer. You’re on very shaky ground.”
“I may have missed this incident, but that doesn’t make bad at my job. I know who did this.”
“There is a pipeline no less than ten kilometers from here. It’s being protected by Chester Okon’s men.”
“Okon? The MEND commander?”
Simon nodded. “It would have been his men who attacked us. This is their territory. I reckon we can negotiate. See if we can agree to a cease fire if we return these boys.”
“You can’t know where he is? No one does. Not even the CIA.”
“Can’t I?” Simon grinned.
Ndulu grinned with him. “I heard a rumor that you led surveillance operations against the Taliban? In Afghanistan? Is that what you’re doing here?”
Simon kept his expression neutral. “I can’t talk about that. You know how it is.”
Ndulu shrugged, shifting from one leg to the other. “You’re serious about Okon? You really know where he is?”
Simon’s only response was to keep grinning.
Ndulu ran his tongue across his teeth as he considered Simon’s proposal. “Okay, but you do all the talking. I’ve had enough risking my life for one day.”
They returned to the group. Ndulu marched to Visser. “Sergeant. You take these three back to our offices, but keep it quiet for now.”
Visser spat into the earth, “Sir, with all respect, this holnaaier Ashcroft is feeding you a line of buffalo shit.”
“Just follow orders, Sergeant.”
“I don’t think you’ve thought this through, sir —”
“Don’t you dare question me, Sergeant!” growled Ndulu. He puffed out his muscular chest and tensed the biceps in his thick arms. “You’re one inappropriate comment away from latrine duty for a month.”
Visser clenched his teeth and his fists in unison. “Yes sir.” There was no masking of his anger, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.
“Then what are you waiting for Sergeant? A cuddle? Fucking get to it!”
As Visser performed as ordered, Simon considered if Ndulu disliked Visser as much as he did.
Until eight months ago Simon had been reasonably happy in Cape Town. He ran DevWorld’s South African security teams contracted to corporations operating in the Cape Province. His teams were comprised of nothing less than professional ex-soldiers, police officers and former spies. They obeyed orders and his networks provided reliable intelligence. Simon reported directly to the owner and managing director of DevWorld Security, Roger Gridley-Brooks, who had grown to trust Simon with operational details. That was because of Simon’s exemplary track record of running assignments smoothly and without casualties. As a result he was well paid. He could afford a nice apartment in Cape Town overlooking the South Atlantic beaches. Best of all, his contract stipulated that he flew home every four weeks for a week off with his family.
Then nine months ago everything changed. Gridley-Brooks bought a fifty-one percent share in Ndulu Adebayo’s Rivers State security firm. The move was Gridley-Brooks’s entry into the lucrative Nigerian private security market and Ndulu’s opportunity to pay off mounting debts. It soon became apparent that while Ndulu was an excellent soldier and leader of men, he had little experience in intelligence gathering or special operations work. Simon had been brought in, as had Visser, for their supposedly complementary skills to Ndulu’s team. Both were DevWorld men and known to Gridley-Brooks, but until their meeting in Port Harcourt neither of them had met or conversed online or via telephone. Simon had feared friction between him and Ndulu, but it turned out Simon and Visser were the bigger problem. Perhaps there was a mutual hatred between Ndulu and Visser too.
Feeling the heat of the sun and the perspiration on his face, he wiped away swamp mud, oil and soot, wondering how this would all end. Because it needed to end. The Niger Delta was nothing that Simon had hoped it would be. He worked longer hours to keep on top of problems that wouldn’t have even existed in South Africa. Weaponry and general consumables were constantly lacking. The threat intensity was so much higher than anywhere else he had worked as a private citizen. He no longer had access to reliable informant networks, making gathering intelligence barely worth the effort needed to obtain it. But what bothered him the most was that Ndulu kept cancelling his trips home.
Ndulu always had a reason why he needed Simon nearby, some problem or other that only Simon could fix. Simon had returned home only once in the last eight months, over three months ago. He was scheduled for a rest and recuperation break now, but that might change if Langenham’s death triggered DevWorld losing their lucrative oil company contract. It would come as little surprise if Ndulu forced Simon to stick around to ensure that didn’t happen.
But Simon wasn’t going to let that happen. He had to fix the problem now.
If Langenham had just listened and kept his window up, they would have driven through this and nothing MEND could have thrown at them would have stopped them. That would definitely be in his report. He, Ndulu — even Visser and the rest of the team – had followed protocol. Ensuring the client understood was their only chance of salvaging this situation.
Ndulu stepped away to make some calls on his mobile phone. Then Visser approached Simon.
“I’m sorry Naas. I know Piotr’s death will be hitting you hard.”
“You know nothing about me, bro. Not a fokking thing.”
“I know I’ll miss Piotr. He was a good man.”
Visser didn’t smile, but he didn’t sneer either when he said, “You’ve got a plan, have you bro?”
“I hope it’s a good plan, because if you get yourself killed, I know a better intelligence officer who’ll replace you well enough.”
Simon bit down his anger. “I’m not going to get myself killed. Get used to having me around.”
His calls finished, Ndulu returned. He and Simon climbed into the unoccupied Land Rover. Visser kept sneering at Simon.
With Ndulu at the wheel, Simon checked their weapons and reloaded their magazines, their comms throat and earpieces, and his GPS tracker. He adjusted his body armor so it wasn’t too tight around his waist.
“What’s your plan?” Ndulu asked once they were driving.
“Something I tried in Afghanistan.”
“So you were there?”
“Were you involved in Taliban surveillance?”
Simon nodded. Ndulu had guessed so there was no point hiding it anymore, and the technologies he used were in the public domain now anyway. “The Taliban are a problem because their operations are so primitive, especially when it comes to communications. I organized teams setting up fake plants, rocks, and bricks in houses that were actually bugs. Common everyday items you wouldn’t look twice at.”
Ndulu picked up a rock, weighed it in his hand. “Fucking hell. Did it work?”
Simon said nothing.
“Is that how you get your intelligence now, here in the Delta?”
Simon shrugged. He wanted to say yes, but that would have been a lie.
“When were you in Afghanistan?”
“Two years ago.”
“Why wasn’t it on your resume?”
Simon shuddered, remembering the trouble he had gotten himself into, and the reasons why he had to quit the intelligence services. “The less people who know I was there, the better. You know how it is.”
“So tell me: did the plan work then?”
Ashcroft remembered his first day, onboard the C-17 Globemaster III delivering him and fifty or more soldiers, spies and defense civilians into the theatre of war. Five minutes before the military cargo transport crossed from Pakistani to Afghani airspace, their pilot announced their imminent entry into the hostile zone. Within two minutes everyone on board had fitted their bullet proof vests and helmets, strapped their kits to their bodies, grabbed hold of their assault rifles and checked their ammo clips, then buckled in. For the next twelve months in the country, Simon hadn’t once felt safe. Insurgents were always taking shots at westerners, often with rockets fired from the mountains, so even the American, European and Australian bases couldn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Most times the insurgents missed wildly but, as he knew through personal experience, every now and then one got lucky. Death, it seemed, was purely random. When your time was up, it was generally too late even to notice that you’d given up your breathing rights. You were already gone.
“No, it didn’t work. Afghanistan was where it all went to shit.”
“Well, just make sure it doesn’t go to shit here.”
Simon nodded. Since Afghanistan, the sound of falling rockets always gave him a chill.