Chapter 1 - Opportunistic Preditors
As the bush plane dropped in altitude, the people on the road looked like a patchwork quilt of colorful smudges on its light brown surface, as it snaked through a clearing and then back into the rain forest. His window open, Billy shouted over the engine noise to the pilot. Billy’s camera took him to all corners of the world. He motioned down with his thumb then his forefinger. What a rush. I love the first days of a shoot. The pilot gave him a thumbs-up and nosed the plane towards the colorful roadway. Looking through the long-distance lens that he poked out the plane’s open window, Billy blinked and twitched away from the viewfinder. He looked at the pilot and pointed at the road.
“No one’s moving,” he shouted, mouthing the syllables.
The pilot considered his instruments and shrugged his shoulders before nudging the joystick upward.
“I told you, you were crazy to come here,” he shouted over the din.
Billy got a series of snaps on automatic. Ebola’s not supposed to kill like that. The last frame included a billboard announcing Kenema City as the gateway to the rainforest. More like the gateway to Hell. The other pictures shocked even war-hardened Billy’s soul as he eyed them on the LCD. During the rest of the short flight over the canopy of the jungle, he riffled through the grizzly slideshow, shuffling the deck back and forth with skillful flips of his supple fingers. Such a waste. All those families destroyed. Not long after, the bush plane circled over another clearing as the images of death burned into Billy’s brain before the pilot permitted a gentle bounce down onto a stretch of recently cleared runway. Charred stumps, evidence of slash and burn littered the edges of the open space.
Preoccupied by the macabre scene on the back way into the outskirts of Kenema City, Billy considered what he had to do: collect blood samples and get pictures. Judging by the extent and the dispersal of the corpses, it had to be a weapon. Looks like it burned through those people. Way too fast even for a bleeder like Ebola.
His job as a National Geographic stringer and syndicated war photographer masked his real employer. Billy worked in an ultra-secret unit of the Mossad, peopled by gentiles - all outcasts in their own way, all with unique skill sets.
“New strip. How’d you find it?”
Billy turned to look at the pilot. The pilot spun his plane back in the direction he landed and came to a stop at a 45 degree angle across the runway.
“You paid to get to Kenema City. The city’s about 5 kilometers down that way. Now, get the fuck out, man,” said the pilot as he held the brake and kept his hand on the accelerator. “No gas up for me here. You wanna die. That’s your business.”
“Nope. Diamond smuggling. It’s the only business working now. Even a plague doesn’t stop those bastards. Smuggler’s airport. Judging by the look of things, only been up and running for a few days.”
“Show me exactly where I am on the map,” said Billy as he held down the plane’s accelerator with his knee and squeezed the pilot’s throat with the other.
“Easy cowboy. Look out there. Those guys’ll tell you anything you need to know.”
Billy looked out the window over his shoulder, easing up on the pilot’s throat. Two plumes of yellowish dust approached behind dirt bikes. As they got closer, Billy made out the shape of Kalashnikovs strapped over their chests. Just what I fucking need.
“They’s nobody’s buddies, my friend. You said, just get me there. Now let me get out of here. I wanna meet those assholes even less than you. I got you here. That was the deal.”
Distracted for an instant, Billy played for time and popped up the accelerator so the plane sped back up the runway pitching dust at the bikes and forcing them to stop and wait. Meanwhile the pilot reached below his seat with a free hand and pulled out a vintage automatic, thumbed off the safety and pointed it at Billy, who was eyeing him in the reflection on the window. The plane came to a halt. Billy grabbed the automatic with his left hand and jabbed the pilot in the solar plexus. Billy turned the relic over in his hand.
“My dad had one of these. They’re from Europe. Everyone kept them when they demobilized.”
Billy grabbed his large duffel bag, slung a camera holder over his other shoulder, adjusted his bush hat and dropped onto the ground. The single-prop plane had whirled around after Billy leaped out. He turned his head away from the dust wash of the prop and blocked his eyes with a free hand as the pilot sped back up the dirt runway. For an instant, there was no sound, only motor, then the cacophony of the jungle started up again filling the vacuum left after the plane’s acceleration disappeared. Billy looked around. As if on key the sound of the swooshing wings followed by the trumpeting calls of Yellow backed Hornbills turned Billy’s eyes towards them. He picked up the long lens camera around his neck, steadied his aim with a sharp intake of breath before snapping a double tap of the birds – old habits die hard. You can take Billy out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of Billy. Love that smell. The tropics always rejuvenated Billy and that day was no different than any other time he arrived in some backwater of the world. A smile filled his face.
Luck favors the prepared mind. An image of ‘Nam, of First Sergeant Jonas on point, filled Billy’s mind’s eye. The din of the jungle broken by the approaching trail bikes gave his bowels a familiar tremble. His eyes went into motion, routine stifling fear. Up to the right, diagonally down to the left. No movement anywhere. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Thanks Sarge.
“Billy boy, sometimes I think you’re too stupid to be afraid, and then I look in those eyes. Take this ‘cherry’ on point and show ‘im the ropes. And for fuck’s sake, bring ‘im back alive like I did you that first day you came here,” said First Sergeant Jonas.
First Sergeant Jonas was a living legend, untouchable under fire for going on three tours. Billy didn’t show it but he was scared. Even after five years in ‘Nam his insides quaked when he took point. The sequences Jonas had drilled into him on point had saved his life many times.
“Billy here,” he said pointing his two fingers at the new recruit’s eyes and then at his own eyes. These’re gonna save your life today. Don’t think. Do exactly like I do. Keep movin’ slowly but never let the eyes go slow.”
The two of them got ahead of the main unit. Billy crouched low and shifted from side-to-side on the track through the mangrove. When they approached a turn in the trail, Billy extended his free hand in a clenched fist up beside his helmet. The first time, the greenhorn bumped into Billy from behind making a racket. Billy whispered.
“That’s how you get us all killed, kid. How long was your training stateside? No, forget it. I don’ wanna know. What I just did with my fist means stop.”
“I know. I know, but I-”
The new soldier’s insides were doing their own shuddering.
“I know. I can smell it. I’ll keep the point here, but make it fast cleaning up over there.”
“In there?” he said, pointing to the brown water to the right of the path.
“Move. I ain’t got all day.”
The new recruit walked into the water and sank with a splash and a curse up to his armpits. He shook his pants down under the water and cleaned them out as best he could. Billy had to go over to the swampy water and pull him out exposing his back to the trail. He shook his head.
“If it’s any consolation I shit my pants the first day too. I just didn’t let anyone know about it. You see my back to the trail? Remind me to show ya why you don’t drop your pants in that water later tonight.”
“Naw. Leeches. And turning my back like that. That’s how Charlie gets you. No Charlie today. We got lucky. Now move in behind me. Look to the right and I’ll look to the left. Start at the tops of the trees and slide your eyes down to the ground diagonally to the right. I’ll do the opposite from the ground to the sky diagonally up to the left. That way we cover all the space in front of us. You know who taught me that?”
“Sarge did and I’m not sir to you. I’m alive ‘cause I do that all the time. The man behind does what I said, he stays alive. We’re all scared shitless. You’ll never get over it. Develop routines to occupy your mind and say them in your head. That’s how I stayed alive almost three tours now.”
Billy used the same fingers to eyes gesture he had used when they first started on point. The younger soldier settled in a bit and followed on behind Billy. Sarge meanwhile started the platoon up. He had given Billy a little more time to get ahead because of the training mission. The platoon moved out in Billy’s mind’s eye and Billy snapped back to Africa and Ebola, a new battlefield.
Cajones down to his knees. Jonas sure had balls. Billy often thought of First Sergeant Jonas when he started a new photoshoot in a war zone. Ebola’s like a war zone. He knelt on one knee and pulled up on a side pocket cover to get out his SAT phone, his connection to Mossad, then thought better of it. Those images of corpses strewn on the road into Kenema City rushed back into his mind him. Thomas and Kefira need to see the spread of the dead there. Worse than a viral hot zone. Had to be a weapon. Like some kind of predator slashed its way along the road. Ebola takes time. Everyone died at the same instant there.
He waited while the guys on bikes sat about 30 feet off. The smell of Ganga, strong local pot, preceded them on the wind. They’d stopped a few seconds ago. One of them took his machine pistol over his head and waved it at Billy. Why do they always smoke pot in these shitholes? Makes ‘em trigger happy. Billy raised his hand over his head and held a white handkerchief in it. The other hand prepared to pop out the pilot’s 45 automatic and leap to the left where there were some piles of dirt and stone left over from building the crude airstrip.
“Journalist,” he shouted over the racket of a revving motorcycle.
The second bike approached and the rider had a pistol in his hand now. He took a pot shot at Billy, a test, but his bike hopped on some dirt and he missed by a wide margin. The hornbills echoed their garnish. Billy leaped to the left and pulled out the 45 calibre from the back of his waistband with his other shooting hand, the left. On the way down he popped the pistol out of the rider’s hand with two taps. Billy waited. No more shots. The shooter was snapping out his fingers and cursing in a strange tongue. He kept one eye on Billy as he bent over to pick up his own pistol.
“What the fuck you want?” he shouted, waving his pistol again.
Billy waited. The other guy, still about 30 feet away, was talking on some kind of two-way radio on his shoulder. His hands rested on his Kalashnikov. When he finished talking into his mouthpiece, he gunned his bike up to Billy without pointing a weapon.
“Man say take you into shed.”
“He get it,” said the second man, pointing at the fellow who had shot at Billy.
“That fucker ain’t gonna touch my shit.”
Some discussion went on between an unseen commander and the bike rider as Billy eased his way back to his camera and duffel bags. Both men looked on closely as Billy hefted the large black bag over his shoulder and put his camera bag around his neck, securing it in place with a Velcro strap on the flak jacket he put on first. Billy pointed his weapon at the first biker and motioned for him to get on the second motor cycle behind the one with the communicator. His stoned eyes glared, but did it.
Billy heard someone burst out laughing through the communicator. Something tells me I’m gonna like that guy. The three of them made their way up the bumpy runway. In the distance a metal and concrete brick shack took shape as they approached. Armed men were lounging around. A voice from inside the cinder-block construction bellowed something in a language Billy didn’t understand. It was the same voice that Billy had heard laughing over the communicator. Three men approached him cautiously. The biggest of them motioned that he wanted to frisk Billy. Billy shook his head but flipped the 45 in his hand to him grip first. A large shadow filled the doorway about 15 feet away. Billy could not see his face. Military stance. Used to command. Not used to rabble like this.
“If he comes closer, I’ll be the last person he touches,” said Billy loud enough for the commander to hear, ignoring the trio around him.
The commander nodded and the three men moved away backwards. The commander, a mountain of a man, with a cleanly shaved head and military fatigues neatly tucked into shiny boots stepped forward. They looked at each other. Billy’s arms hung loosely by his sides, but every muscle in his body tingled.
Billy and the commander jockeyed for position. Billy moved to get his back nearer to an Acacia tree. The others remained tense, but Billy noticed that they hadn’t raised their weapons. The commander spoke first.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now?”
“More just like me where I come from,” bluffed Billy.
A large bird blocked the sun for an instant as it flew overhead. The glossy whites of the man-in-charge’s eyes shone.
“You going to ask me if I feel lucky today, Clint?’ asked the commander.
“Billy. It’s Billy, not Clint. You expecting someone called Clint?”
“You’re full of shit, Clint, but I like you. You’re all on your own here, white boy. Let’s talk inside.”
He motioned for Billy to enter his hut. Inside, dusty sunbeams from bullet holes in the metal roof decorated the air. Billy rolled to the ground and sprung up behind another person who stood up as he entered, his killing knife near her neck. It’s a woman. Jesus she smells good. The woman smelled exquisitely of oiled skin and a hint of some spices he didn’t recognize. His downward peripheral vision caught her nipples taut with fear. Christ, a half-naked woman.
“Bad manners, Clint. You cut my woman and you don’t walk out of here. My turn to threaten now.”
“She surprised me.”
“She surprises most men. I found her in Somalia a year ago. Her father owed me some money. And you know how it is. Now let her go.”
Billy took a clean white handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed it on her neck where a trickle of blood ran down onto her collar bone filling the cavity there. With pressure the wound would stop bleeding. Billy offered her the cloth, but she refused his suggestion and went back to her seat.
“No photographer reacts like that, Clint. You got balls and training, even if you’re a bit old. Whiskey?”
“I am a photographer, but I wasn’t always one.”
“You can keep bullshitting me if you want. What is it you need? Why’d you come to this Hell on earth? Actually, I thought someone like you might come. The samples, right?”
The woman covered herself and Billy couldn’t help but admire the methodical way she did it out of the corner of his eye. Her eyes never left him as she reached down and pulled a flimsy cloth from the ground beside her. Billy could just barely make out the shape of her body through the material as she adjusted her robe in the light of a window, the metal shade over which she had cracked open. She supplicated in the commander’s direction and opened the metal shutter more. Africa flooded into the room. The sounds and the smells trebled. In the light from the window, Billy noticed a younger version of the woman he had manhandled sitting motionless on the other side of the room. She looked passively at Billy. She started husking corn as if the opening of the shutter was a signal to become normal. Took my eyes of him to look at a woman. Getting rusty, Billy.
“I used to hunt here when I was a boy. Now it’s mostly corn fields.”
Billy nodded in the direction of the younger woman. The commander laughed from his heart.
“The older one wouldn’t leave without her little sister. So I took both of them. The father’s debt equalled a double bride’s price.”
The older woman came forward. She served black tea in chipped glasses while the commander got up and fetched a half-full bottle of whiskey. The liquid sloshed out into two glasses.
“She won’t even touch the bottle. A believer,” said the big man.
Billy accepted the whiskey, his eyes tracking the two women silently going about the routines of meal preparation. The fresh green aroma of hot peppers started the parade of smells and sounds invading his senses in the cloistered room. A shadow passed out the door accented by the whites of the younger woman’s eyes as she glanced questioningly at Billy just before the shape of her breast pointing outward distracted him through the delicate muslin cloth of her shawl in the lowering sunlight. A hint of a smile moved her cheek. I’ve been alone far too long. Why’s this guy offering me this woman like this? The thump, thump of a large mortar and pestle started echoing from somewhere nearby.
“Good whiskey?” asked the host.
“I’m not a whiskey drinker, but this tastes better than most I’ve tried.”
“Clint drinks only bourbon then. I have some, if you prefer.”
“No this peaty stuff’s fine, thanks.”
The men outside joked with the young woman while she pounded her part of the meal in progress. She encouraged them with banter in a language Billy imagined was Somalis. A slapping sound accompanied by a guttural hiss interrupted the banter. These sounds brought Billy’s host to his feet. He towered over Billy, moving with the agility of a professional dancer on stage, getting to the doorway in one fluid effort. Billy caught the unmistakable glint of steel coming out from under his host’s shirt collar. The giant man stepped into the courtyard and simultaneously tossed his blade. The sound of metal slicing flesh pierced Billy’s thoughts. The throat judging by the gurgling sound. A loud thump syncopated the unbroken thumps of the young woman’s work, signaling an end to the interruption. Billy heard the snap of long fingers and then the quick movement of feet.
“Wait,” uttered the second man who halted just outside the cinder-block house’s entrance. “Your shirt.”
Billy heard the unmistakable sound of a blade ringing as it ran through material. The wall of a man came back into the room. His eyes gleamed and his neck beaded with a trickle of sweat.
“Family is a pleasure and a responsibility,” he said, teeth smiling eyes locking onto Billy.
The younger woman came back into the room accompanied by the odor of freshly ground peanuts. She was carrying a bunch of dried leaves that she had pulled from a line of different leaves hanging in bunches near the door. Sooner rather than later. I better come out with it. Billy forgot to come clean as quickly as he’d thought about clearing the air concerning his reason for being there, but a trace of his thoughts must have remained on his face. The charcoal black man laughed deeply and shot his hands into the air. His knife slipped back into its neck sheath.
“She do that to me too,” he said, reading Billy’s expression.
The young woman set about lighting a gas fire under a propane stove that had been hidden from Billy’s view by a piece of furniture. Carvings etched in the dark wood became apparent when she opened the latticed doors, exposing one of them to a sunbeam. Freshly plucked chicken bubbled in hot oil followed by several different bunches of leaves, then the freshly roasted peanuts were gently counted into the mix. The combination filled the sweaty room with pleasurable odors, Ebola retreated. In halting Arabic, Billy asked the cook if it was cassava leaves. Her eyes bolted open, then her lids half-closed and her head bent low. She turned fully towards the preparation.
“This woman’s my property.”
“Watching her made me forget. Normal tasks brought out something in me. Forget it.”
The big man spoke quickly to the younger woman. The young woman turned to Billy without looking directly in his eyes.
“Cassava and sweet potato leaves. It’s called a Plasas. I added the peanuts to please you. All Americans like peanuts, no?”
“Where’d you learn English?”
“My father did business all over the world. She came up to Billy and extended her hand in welcome. “Fatimah.”
Billy squeezed a little longer than normal savoring the delicate cool embrace.
“We can talk about her after dinner. Now we sit and settle some things before the food. Another drink?”
“The best whiskey money can buy and you want water?”
“Whiskey takes away your ambition.”
The room echoed with heartfelt laughter. The two women cooked in the background, both of them relaxed thanks to the way Billy made the chief laugh.
“I am Abioye. They told me to expect you,” he said.
“That’s Yoruba, isn’t it?”
“Strange knowledge for a ‘huevo’, sorry, white man, but yes, I am Yoruba.”
“Who told you?”
“The sample man from CIA.”
“I’m freelance, not CIA.”
“Maybe I’ll kill you then.”
“What about the woman?”
“Where’d you grow your balls, Clint?”
Not wanting to spoil the atmosphere, Billy asked with a nod and a gesture for permission to go to and open his duffel bag. Abioye dipped his head knocking it a little upward while gesturing with a flick of his fingers. His hand did scratch his ear though. Never know, he thought. Walking by her, Billy glanced into the younger woman’s eyes and caught the faintest smile tracing her lips. He turned so his host could watch his movements as he rummaged around in the bag and brought out a plastic bag containing a rectangular lump of something. Billy placed the pile on the table between himself and the man.
“Open it,” said the man.
Billy snapped a ceramic blade out of its wrist holder into his palm. It easily sliced the outer plastic wrap. The familiar look of American dollars showed through. Billy highlighted the 100 dollar with the point of his blade.
“You touch the bills first. No poisonous tricks then, eh?”
Billy edged the tip of the blade under the plastic and sliced with his hand covering the cut. The man appreciated Billy’s skill. He raised one eyebrow.
“They told me you’d be good.”
“I need samples too.” There, it’s out in the open now. “Several tubes and you show me the men who took the samples for CIA. I’ll take the samples myself. No tricks then, eh?” said Billy mimicking Abioye's accent.
“You understand I won’t go in there. It’s still burning through the area. No one knows where it lives. Money is good, but look around me here. Life is better. Keep your money. Take the woman and walk out of here. I’ll call the plane right now,” said the black man never taking his eyes from Billy’s hand extended over the blade.
“No can do, chief. Abioye is royalty in these parts, isn’t it?”
Billy stood up being careful to keep the blade hidden in its wrist sheath covered by his extended hand. The hand pointed at the chief. Two beads of sweat rolled down the chief’s cheeks after appearing like tears. His shaved head glistened. Billy dropped his hand down, snapped his wrist up and shot the ceramic weapon into the table. A shiver passed over the chief, but his eyes filled easily with laughter again. The blade wobbled. It had penetrated into the ebony table.
“I’m starving,” said Billy.
He pulled the blade from the wood and reinserted it into its sheath. Abioye nodded to the two women who stepped towards the men carrying a large tray between them. It was covered first with sticky flat bread then with small piles of meat, vegetables and sauces. The men reached out with their right hands and nibbled appreciatively. The women stood behind until Billy invited them to the table. After a shake of Abioye’s head and an affirmative nod, the two women joined the men at the table. All used hands and scooped food and sauce onto the inside of the four fingers before knocking the delicacies into their mouths with the flick of the thumb nail. No one spoke until after the ritual. The women left first with the tray. Fatimah looked directly at Billy.
“That was the best meal I’ve had for years,” Billy said.
Her face lit up with a smile, but Abioye clicked his fingers together, getting Billy's attention.
“You see why I didn’t collect that stuff for them. The plague’s in the air out there. Don’t go. I’ll send someone.”
“I brought the right equipment.”
“Fool. Suit yourself.”
Billy caught the whites of Fatimah’s eyes flashing. Why am I even considering her?
“I’ll need a vehicle and the sample men from before. Can you get me past the roadblocks?”
Billy glanced at the women and darted his eyes towards the door so that Abioye could guess what he wanted.
“You seem to know your way around pretty good, Clint.”
Billy repeated his eye movement.
“Fatimah, go and get those guys who went in for the samples. No, on second thought, take your mother with you. It’ll be safer that way,” he said in English, knowing his wife couldn’t follow his words.
The two women left after covering their hair with decorative, hand-dyed silk. Billy nodded to his host.
He reached again into his duffel bag.
The big man went rigid, his eyes darted down to Billy’s hands, while his right hand touched his ear. Billy removed his hands from the bag and pointed his palm outward.
“I’m not Clint, chief. First I gotta go in there and get the samples your boys, shall we say, misplaced.”
Abioye’s hand rubbed his baldness towards the back and came off his head soaked. Billy’s hands both faced the man, fingers extended, ready, as he shifted his weight gently on the balls of his feet.
“I’ll watch your bags for you.”
Billy pulled down his lower eyelid with his finger.
“Bears shit in the woods?”
“Lion metaphors I get, Billy. Bears I know shit about. ”
“Only when the brambles are full.”
“Your eyes look dark, man.”
“Funny, my first sergeant in ‘Nam always said that.”
“You understand, I don’t want that rabble out there to get her.”
“What about her mother?” asked Billy as he pulled up a white suit out of the bag and lay it down on the dirt floor.
“She has the other African disease. My fault, but I just carry. So you see, I’m in up to my neck.”
“When I come out, we’ll talk turkey.”
Billy put a wad of cash from his bag on the table. Abioye’s eyes never left Billy’s.
“More animals, but that one I know from the old movies. John Wayne?”
“Maybe, before my time, chief. Later,” said Billy as he removed his fatigues.
The two women returned with two men in tow.
“They speak some English, Billy. How’re you going to communicate?”
“You let them know what we’re gonna be up to. And I’ll use hand signals.
The men had waited by the door, one was lanky, agitated. A long hand-rolled joint dangled from his lips. The other was squat with active eyes. Billy reacted like a coiled spring and unwound himself around the pothead, and Billy ended up behind the man with his large hands wrapped around the man’s neck. In the circling movement Billy had caught Abioye’s eye and noted his approval, or at least indifference. Billy’s back braced against the wall of the hut. He snapped the man’s neck. His partner’s cheek twitched a little, but his eyes remained on Abioye’s eyes. He didn’t even raise his weapon to defend his friend.
“Too much ganja’s no good. Now you tell us what happened to the samples you collected?” asked Abioye.
The man cursed and spit but he started talking. A twitch in his cheek made it difficult for him to talk at times, but Billy could see he was alert.
“Can he drive a vehicle?” asked Billy.
“Those bikes are all we’ve got,” said the chief pointing to the motorcycles that had gone out to pick Billy up at the end of the runway.
The man seemed to be following the conversation.
“You work with me. Get the job done?” Billy asked.
He nodded then rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together. Billy nodded back.
“Half now, half after,” said Billy adding some gestures to help the meaning along.
“Bad samples not my idea,” he said and rubbed his thumb and two fingers together again.
The man didn’t laugh but he nodded agreement.
“Money talks, bullshit walks,” he said and then burst into laughter louder than Abioye’s outbursts.
Billy laughed and returned to the cinder block building before Abioye. His new partner winked at the nearest of the guards who returned a fist and palm on his biceps and mouthed, va fungulo! They both tossed their heads back.
Inside the hut, the two women and Abioye looked at the medical suit lying on the floor like an empty blow-up doll. The three of them shook their heads in unison.
“You want to get in and out fast, no?” asked the chief.
“You said it.”
“If you wear this get up, they won’t believe you’re a photographer. The people’ll assume you’re a doctor and they’ll either mob you for Western medicine or kill you as thief.”
“Most people think the ‘white’ man is stealing body parts. They don’t believe Ebola exists. You’re a dead man if you wear this suit in there.”
“Why’re you telling me this? What’s it to you what happens to me?” added Billy for a second forgetting his implied offer to take care of Fatimah.
“I saw the way you looked at her, man. I think you’re coming back here just like you say.”
“You said the disease’s airborne. If I don’t wear the suit, I’m a dead man.”
“I can direct you around the places where the airborne particles are most likely to live.”
Only one way he knows that. Billy rolled up the suit and put it inside the duffel bag. He didn’t scare easily, but Abioye had just admitted he knew something he shouldn’t have known. Why the fuck would he let me in on that secret? Shit, maybe he’s dying and he knows it.
“Tell me about the weapon and I give you my word I’ll get the girl out of here.”
Abioye rubbed his bald head. Billy raised his hands to be able to use his ceramic knife in firing mode. The chief laughed.
“We could’ve been friends, Clint. Sit down. If you don’t need a whiskey, I do.”
The big man sat heavily. You gotta believe me. Don’t get me wrong. I was, and I say was, a fighter, a jihadist. But this, this, is too much, man. Those bastards didn’t tell me what it was. They told me to wear a mask and not touch any blood and I’d be fine.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“I had a spray canister.”
“You delivered it in aerosol?”
“They told me to act like I was spraying bleach in the town, in Freetown near the most contaminated places. They also told me to spray one particular village with this spray. So I did it. I wore black rubber boots and a butcher’s black apron and a mask. Really looked the part. But you see this.”
Abioye showed Billy the sweat on his hand after he rubbed his head.
“I’m breaking a sweat. The incubation period is 10 to 19 days. I am on day 14 and I’ve got a killer headache. You’d have been dead on arrival if I didn’t get a mother of a headache just before you flew in. I’m toast. I owe it to her to give her a chance.”
“You still haven’t told me about the weapon.”
“Ok. Listen up good. Near the cemetery and the clinic I sprayed a weaponized Ebola that the Somalis gave me. I brought it back from Mogadishu with the women.”
“How’d you get the liquid on the airplane?”
“That's a long story. Fatimah carried it in two separate places without knowing. Part was in a perfume bottle.”
“You’re a crazy fuck. You know that. I don’t believe it. Weaponized Ebola in aerosol? That takes on hell of a good lab. You expect me to believe there’s a level four secure lab in the Mogadishu slums. Go fuck yourself.”
“You alive or not, Clint?”
“There is that. But everyone in Mogadishu’d be dead now. Just not possible. It’d be all over the news. The world’d be in a panic. No, I don’t buy it.”
“I contacted a friend of mine in Mogadishu when I finished the spray job. He told me to get ready to meet the virgins in paradise.”
“What else did he tell you?”
“It’s a variant of Marburg.”
“Marburg, the German virus from the 60s?”
“One and the same only different.”
“How does your friend know this? “
We studied microbiology back then. He was in Germany and I was in England.”
“You are spinning more shit than-“
“Clint, listen to me. Somehow my friend did it. It’s weaponized Marburg. He made it in a lab in Germany, in Berlin and brought it to Mogadishu.”
“I’ll never understand you people. You had all the advantages of the west and still it comes to this?”
“Give us five hundred years. We’ll have our own enlightenment,” said Abioye with a Gaulic shrug.
“I’m telling you, aren’t I? Get in there and get the samples or the whole world’s dead. Marburg’s nine out of ten dead and this one’s a weaponized version. If you get out of here, take the girl.”
“You’re talking in circles. First you tell me to go. Now you say, the whole world’s at stake and one more thing: didn’t you say you sent someone else in to get the samples before?”
“I’m confused today, not myself and I was less sure of you before.”
“Did you do the spraying or not?”
“I did it. I was with the men Fatimah brought back.”
Billy looked at Fatimah. Abioye spoke again.
“Go now. Take the man out there. He was with me with the sprayer. Bring the oxygen mask and go to the village outside of Freetown. Get the samples from there. There’s enough people dying of it still there. Don’t touch anything. Wear long clothes, gloves and the mask with air just in case.”
“Just in case of what?”
“The aerosol version causes mass destruction almost instantly, but the people who catch the disease from the aerosol victims are not believed to be carrying as virulent a strain.”
“It’s not sure. Wear the mask but only when you draw the samples. Don't draw attention to yourself. Just in case, like I said before.”
“When my new partner sees the mask, what happens?”
“You’re slower that you look, Clint. Don’t show him the mask, just make sure he takes you to the village here,” said Abioye, pointing to a map of Sierra Leonne that he pulled from the pocket of his camouflage shirt. The looked at the map together.
“It’s not far. I don’t even have to go into Kenema to get the pictures or the samples.”
“The village is just here.” Abioye jabbed the map with his finger. “Just after you cross the Moa River on the Bo-Kenema Highway. Remember, your guide mustn’t see the mask; otherwise he’ll disappear into the jungle.”
“You know the terrain better than me. Where’s the best place to go in?”
“Get him to leave the highway in front of you. He won’t expect you to move until after the village. He’s shrewd. He’s alive, eh? Tell him you want to go into the village but not from the main road.”
“Might be a roadblock. It’s a hot zone now. The less people you see the better.”
“Just after you cross over the Moa-”
“How far exactly?”
“Just here, maybe 750 feet from the river.”
“The Bo Highway’s problematic. You’re forgetting we’ve got the plague here.”
“And bringing a murderer waiting to slit my throat is a good idea?”
“He knows everyone on the highway. He’s you’re ticket if you meet anyone and your cash talks. He's reliable, up to a point.”
The sun was falling to the horizon and the jungle became more alive. Birds and some larger animals joined the chorus of insects. Billy sat and took some face color, green and black, out of his duffel bag. He dabbed alternating patterns of it on all the shiny places on his face using the reflection from a flat blade to check his handiwork.