Once you reach a certain age, the heliphone starts ringing. It always does around or a while after midnight. Nowadays, it rings more often. Past loves are calling in from the afterlife. The other night it was Amalia.
“I didn’t see you at my funeral. Why didn’t you come? Why not bring me any flowers? After all, we spent some good times together.”
“Oh, dearest Amalia! Your voice sounds just like before. Australia was a bit far for me. Where are you now?”
“Much farther than Australia. You remember that day in the dunes?”
“Wonderful. I often dream of it.”
“So how come you didn’t marry me?”
“Blame it on my immaturity. I didn’t realize how good you would’ve been for me.”
“That figures; you were proposing all over the place after you left me. Are you any happier now?”
“It would’ve been nice to share our lives. If I’d had more than one, I would’ve done it.”
“I’ll keep a seat reserved for you here then. Till soon.”
The heliphone broke off. That “soon” gave me the shivers. I got up and made myself a stiff Martini. What did she know?
Earlier this week, I got another call from Irene.
“Nobody came to my funeral. Only Cindy, you remember, our bridesmaid, and that bloody husband of mine who’d left me alone most of the time. Why did you divorce me? “
“Probably for the same reason your second husband left you alone.”
“We had so much fun together, don’t you remember that sofa?”
“I do, delightful, but you embezzled my money.”
“Come on. All that paper’s just monopoly money. You can’t take it over here.”
“Where’s over here?”
“The purgatory. I don’t know why they put me here. It’s always cold. I spent time enough in jail.”
“Terrible. It surprised me you got married again.”
“I got him the same way I got you.”
“By pretending he’d made me pregnant.”
“Yeah, I remember that. I think purgatory is fine for you.”
The line broke off. I shivered again and took another Lorazepam. Was I lucky I got rid of her. She took all my money and still keeps calling me. That heliphone is a nightmare.
Mid-week wasn’t any better. It was Marilou, the fat girl from Switzerland, who I heard via the grapephone had suddenly passed away.
“I got heart trouble because I was overweight.”
“I’m so sorry, Marilou. I guess you’ve got plenty to eat now and can’t die anymore.”
“I still hate you. You only made love to me in the Alps because you got high rubbing my big boobs. You were a pervert.”
“I remember you telling me that. I broke my back, lifting you all the time because you couldn’t stay up on your skis.”
“I offered you my millions of Swiss Francs, but you only wobbled in between my boobs, said ‘Ahhh,’ and left me.”
“You told me the Swiss tycoon you married did it for your boobs too.”
“He was supposed to go before me. Now he’s got all my money and married an ultra-slim pin-up from Vanity Fair.”
“Are you calling him too?”
“His phone is off the hook. I hate Vanity Fair.”
The heliphone died away. Marilou was one of those sad moments in life you want to forget but keep being reminded of. How did she get my number?
Last night was the worst ever. It was Anita from Norway, my biggest regret in love life.
“I wish I’d married you,” Anita said.
“A bit late to tell me that now. What happened?”
“My husband murdered me.”
“Oh, no! Why?”
“Because I kept dreaming aloud at night mentioning your name, saying that I loved you.”
“I hope they put him on death row.”
“Death row does not exist in my country. But hell does here.”
“Awful. You think I could do anything?”
“Go to his prison and poison him. I want him in hell right now where they’ll knife him with red-burning forks every second.”
“But they’d catch me and put me in prison as well.”
“Don’t worry. I’m told we have our ways up here and I’ll protect you.”
“But I won’t get you back, Anita. What’s the point?”
“You’ll be here soon enough, darling, and we’ll live happily ever after.”
That was enough to whip me into a frenzy, and I swallowed two Lorazepams, but I stayed awake all night, shivering.
* * *
I’m on my way to Oslo now with a dose of cyanide wrapped in foil paper and my heliphone in my pocket to get word where that prison is.
Sitting cramped in my window seat, I wondered why the moon had this mocking smile on his face. My heliphone didn’t ring. Maybe because of secret regulations between Heaven and air traffic control?
I still didn’t know the whereabouts of Anita’s husband’s prison. I stumbled through customs on arrival at dawn. A voice told me that the cab driver would know. “Oslo fengsel,” he confirmed. After going through town, he turned into a long driveway lined by leafless trees and snow-covered grounds, ending at a somber red-stone building. “You wait,” I said and went in. The guards watched me, quizzically. I’d dressed as a priest, my faith-inspiring white-collar shining trustingly behind the white scarf around my neck. I didn’t speak a word of Norwegian but had many times mumbled Anita’s husband’s name, Wilhelm Lassen, that bloody Viking.
I sat in the bare visiting room when Wilhelm Lassen entered, accompanied by a guard, and took the only other seat across the steel table, his face one question mark. The guard left and shut the door. I gazed at Lassen’s hands. As I’d suspected, he didn’t wear rings in prison. I hoped he spoke a bit of English.
“My name’s Father John,” I said. “I’m bringing you a final word from Anita.”
The man’s face grew grey; his lips tightened; his eyes squinted. “Anita dead,” he said with a rolling accent. “I did do nothing. She suffered breath shortage. Who are you?”
“Her confessor when she lived with you in Geneva. She left this small package with me to hand you in case she’d die before you.” I pulled a blue jewelry box from my pocket and handed it to him. In it was a golden ring I’d dipped with a tweezer into a small base with liquid cyanide in the airplane toilet a short while before landing. A friend at a chemical factory gave me the deadly stuff, believing I’d use it to kill persistent mice in my basement. If Wilhelm slid the ring on his finger, his skin would absorb the cyanide, and death would follow soon.
Wilhelm opened the box and stared at it. “My wedding ring?” he asked. “I thought I’d lost it. Rar,” (‘strange’) he muttered. Then he shifted it onto his ring finger, looking sad.
The guard came in and warned me my time was up. I stood, said farewell to Wilhelm, and left as fast as I could. The cab driver took me rapidly to the airport, and I grabbed the first flight out to Amsterdam to erase my footsteps, hopefully having left pandemonium at the Oslo fensel. In Amsterdam, I got the last seat in a crowded United flight to Washington; mission accomplished, I reckoned.
Back home at night, the heliphone rang. It was Anita.
“Thank you, Johnnyboy. He’s nicely burning in Hell, screaming his lungs out.”
“But won’t I be punished?”
“No, you’ll be rewarded in Heaven when you get here in a while. Can’t wait.” Her heavenly voice drifted away.
“Crime pays in the afterlife,” I whispered and fell asleep, uncomfortable about Anita’s eagerness of my forthcoming passing.
Wilhelm’s death was reported as a suicide.
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Our Beechcraft stood at Executive Airfield near Charleston in the glistering afternoon sun. Friends dropped us off after a weekend fishing off the South Carolina coast. We loaded our bags in the hull and walked back to the flight desk for weather information. Tom, my muscled friend from college and a Boeing 737 captain, and I drew up our flight plan. We had been flying the Beechcraft for several years now and enjoyed the fruits of our investments, going out each weekend if we could. I had been flying small planes since I was twenty-five. As I did well in my career as an investment banker, I could afford purchasing the aircraft. Tom pitched in as well.
“Fueling done?” asked Tom
“All fine. Here’s your invoice,” the attendant said. “Weather report OK, but you may hit some thunderstorms near your destination. Nothing to worry about.”
It was my turn to take the Beech back to Manassas in Northern Virginia, our hub. I started the engines, let them roar a few times, and taxied to the run way. Patrick Allen of Dreamstime.com took our picture. A few moments later we were airborne. Soon we would be home to tell the funny boat stories and show off our tanned bodies. Sunita, my wife, would be waiting anxiously. She would never come along. Andy, my son, and daughter Sonia, sometimes flew with us, but they were busy with parties this weekend. Besides, Sunita did not like them coming along. Tom was engaged to his umpteenth beauty, a smart girl from Manilla, but she felt terrified in small planes.
We were flying under visual flight rules in clear skies at an altitude of 9,500 feet, enjoying the scenery of fluffy clouds, the patches of forests and fields gliding by below us, the sonorous hum of the engines. As the weatherman had predicted, after about an hour and a half we began to experience some turbulence but the bright cumulus turned dark much faster than we heard.
Tom radioed Flight Watch for an update and they reported that conditions ahead were changing rapidly. I contacted Flight Service and activated our instrument flight plan, as visibility deteriorated fast. We contacted Air Traffic Control, and the Washington Center controller reported significant storms developing along our planned route. Tom and I discussed if we should return or reroute. But from the cockpit, the sky to the west looked darker and even more menacing. The controller suggested we proceed in northeastern direction to avoid the worst of the storms. Knowing they might have a better radar overview than we, we accepted the new course. It didn’t look much better, but at least it seemed less threatening.
Then flying conditions got suddenly pretty rough. We could not see anything anymore because of the harsh rain and thick clouds. I asked Tom, who had more experience, to take over the controls. We were about twenty minutes from Manassas. The hazardous weather and fierce lightning was now all around us. Turbulence shook the aircraft pretty badly and the instruments beeped several warnings. Tom struggled to keep the aircraft level. The controller informed us of severe thunderstorm activity near Manassas. Tom sneered that it couldn’t be worse than what we were having already.
The controller said landing was still possible and instructed to descend to 4000 feet, but there the clouds were even darker. Lightning kept slicing through them.
Hail began to clatter and the turbulence became increasingly violent. Then the aircraft experienced a sudden loss of 2000 feet. “Damn! Microburst!” yelled Tom to the tower. “Loosing speed going down!” We were far too low, still half a mile from the runway and facing tough headwinds. I led the landing gear down at about 100 knots. Tom applied full throttle to gain height but the aircraft continued to be pushed down. We saw the ground approaching fast. Tom tried to pull up again and level but the Beech veered abruptly to the left in strong gale winds and the nose pitched downward. We hit the ground, skidded and spiraled several times with tremendous shocks, and came to a very rough halt. My seat broke loose or cracked, I didn’t know what happened, but I felt a terrible pain in my back. Luckily no fire broke out and the canopy was still intact, but rain, hail, lightning and thunder continued unabated. Tom leaned forward over his stick, his shoulder hugged in a forward position. I couldn’t move.
“Tom!” I screamed. “The hell wake up man! I feel like I’m dying.”
I noticed a slight shrug in his shoulders, thank God he was alive.
“Tom!” I yelled again.
He came through slowly. His hair was bloodied and his lips were cut. “Come on, John, don’t panic! The tower knows. The meds are coming. Hold on!”
We tried to loosen our seatbelts but everything was twisted. My vision blurred and my senses numbed. The last thing I heard were the ambulance sirens. Thank God! I just hoped they would be in time to get us out before the plane blew up.
* * *
We woke up in a bright white hospital room. Sunita stood near my bed, with the kids, tears in her eyes, but so glad I was alive. Tom’s fiancée, with her typical Philippine name, Mahalina, stood at Tom’s bed, holding his hand. He looked like a Sikh and a surgeon with his head in a ball of white bandage.
“You guys are very lucky,” Sunita said. She wore her black hat as if she had been preparing for my funeral. “Better leave that flying to the birds.”
I laughed, Tom grinned painfully. He couldn’t move his face.
“Yes,” he mumbled through his bandage. “Flying is for the birds.”
Last story ended after Yves shot Mombé and the rangers killed his poaching tribe.
“Can we get this Land Rover to work, to get back in time?” Yves asked.
The captain called one of his rangers. The man opened the hood, peeped inside, searched with his fingers and fiddled with the wires. It took him fifteen costly minutes but it didn’t work.
“Look in Mombé’s pockets or his tent there,” Yves suggested. “He may have kept the keys himself.”
They found them in a small plastic toilet bag next to his filthy mattress.
“Did anyone keep my rifle case?” Yves asked. The captain ordered one of his men to get it from the place where they’d been hiding.
The same man drove Yves and Pierre back to their base, where they found the Highlander waiting. Close to eight in the morning and still an hour drive.
Patrick’s Cessna stood ready to go. Everything was working according to plan. Seemed like one of his many missions accomplished.
By eleven o’clock, they landed at Bangui airport, as scheduled. Jean-Baptiste drove them in the Minister’s SUV. But he didn’t take the Avenue des Martyrs that led to the ministry and went left to the Avenue de l’Indépendance.
“Where are we going?” Yves nerves went on full alert.
“To the Minister’s residence,” answered Pierre, grinning, looking at him.
Yves didn’t understand. “The agreement was that I would get my money at the Minister’s office.”
“The Minister changed his mind,” Pierre said, coolly.
“How did you learn about that?” Yves asked.
“Jean-Baptiste just told me at the airport.” Pierre stared ahead of him and didn’t elaborate.
Yves wished he’d kept his rifle case with him in the event he had to flee, but the job finished, he had stored it in the back of the SUV. Big mistake. But his pistolet MAT 49 rested safely in the holder under his fatigue.
They drove past the French Embassy and several luxury residences, probably rented out to foreigners of international agencies or inhabited by members of the higher ranking political class. Jean-Baptiste stopped in front of a wrought iron gate of a large property surrounded by high concrete walls, topped by razor wire and spikes.
“The Minister’s home?” Yves asked.
“Yes,” Pierre said.
A guard inside holding an AK-47 opened the gate. They drove in and parked in front of a free-standing garage. Jean-Baptiste guided them through a side door of the house into an immense living room, fully furnished with sofas and long chairs, looking out on a terrace and a sprawling swimming pool.
The Minister rose from a long chair on the terrace, put on his colorful gown and slid into his sandals.
“I heard Mombé is gone,” he said, his face not revealing a trace of emotion. “Let me take you to my office.”
Yves followed him, but his instincts told him something wasn’t right. Still, he wanted his money. He stayed behind Pierre, on his guard. The Minister went through the front door, turned left to a large building at the side of the compound and opened its sliding door. His office?
“Come inside, and have a look,” the Minister said, smirking, closing the sliding door. Pierre stood beside him, grinning.
Yves stood looking at a hangar chock-full of tusks displayed on the floor, as well as AK-47 and other arms. Mombé had been a rival. Reason why they didn’t want a French army sniper. Either they wanted him as an accomplice or they wanted him out of the way, and neither was an option. He grabbed his Mat 49 and shot Pierre in the head. Pierre slumped on the floor right in front of the Minister. The Minister froze, tried to flee, but Yves warned, “You stay right here, Monsieur le Braconnier. You tell Jean-Baptiste to bring my money or you’ll be gone, too. I have Legionnaire friends here and you know it.”
The Minister yelled for Jean-Baptiste. Yves hid his pistol in his fatigue. Jean-Baptise arrived, staring baffled at dead Pierre.
“Bring the money,” the Minister ordered.
“Alone, and no tricks” Yves added.
Jean-Baptiste left, puzzled, and came back later with the same type of brown envelope Yves had received in the plane, but much larger.
“Open it,” Yves said, “show it.”
Yves reached into the envelope holding his pistol aimed at the Minister. The Euros were neatly bundled in packs of one hundreds.
“Count them aloud showing me the inside,” Yves said.
Jean-Baptiste did as told and by the time he reached fifty, Yves ordered him to stop. He grabbed the envelope.
“Shut the hangar and bring the car,” Yves said. When the SUV stopped near him, he said to Jean-Baptiste, nudging his pistol in the Minister’s side, “Open the back of the SUV.” He took out his rifle case with his left hand. “Close it,” Jean-Baptiste did. Yves pushed the Minister onto the front seat. “To Sofitel,” he hissed, and sat in the back. “No false moves.”
The SUV drove past the guard who opened the gate, seemingly unaware of what had happened as the hangar was out of his sight. Arriving at the Sofitel, Yves told Jean-Baptiste to leave him the SUV’s keys and to come with him and the Minister to his room. “Don’t say a word, just smile. I keep my pistol aimed at you from my pocket.”
The receptionist in the lobby smiled at the Minister and Jean-Baptiste, who remained stoic, and rushed to push the elevator button for them. He didn’t seem suspicious.
Carrying his rifle case and the envelope in one hand, Yves elbowed his two hostages friendly inside with the other, thanking the receptionist. On the fourth floor he pushed them into his room, and locked the door behind him. He offered the Minister the only chair at the small desk and sat on his bed, keeping his weapon ready.
“Never double-cross a Legionnaire,” he said. “You stay here until I’m gone. If you try to come after me, I’ll inform the French Embassy of your tusks.”
Jean-Baptiste stared at him, his eyes full of hate. The Minister had a mocking expression on his face, as if he didn’t believe what was happening to him. Yves took his duffel bag, put the envelope in it, and closed it. He knifed the telephone cord, left, locked the door behind him, slid his pistol into its holder underneath his fatigue, took the elevator down, passed through the lobby without looking at the receptionist and went for the SUV. Knowing he had little time, he drove to the fishermen’s site at the Oubangui River where he’d gone a few years before. Three fishermen were sitting at the riverbank beside their pirogues, smoking and chatting.
“Take me across the river to a safe place,” he said to them. He held the SUV’s keys in the air and pointed to it. “Yours.”
When he walked onto the opposite shore, he was sure they would be looking for him at the airport or on Bangui’s exit roads, as few would figure he’d fled across the river into the DRC, even though it was a favorite escape route for overthrown presidents and other threatened high officials.
Two weeks later, another set of rebels overtook Bangui, in a never-ending battle over diamonds and territory. The Minister and Jean-Baptiste probably fled or succumbed. The rebels would find the tusks, fight over them, and kill more poor elephants. If he’d stayed with the Foreign Legion, he would most likely have been sent there again to keep locals from slaughtering each other. Useless. Better enjoy a few weeks at the Côte d’Azur.
HIT MAN KILLS HIS PREY
After landing, Patrick left the engines running. “I’ll pick you up by nine tomorrow morning,” he said. “If you aren’t here I assume you won’t come. The driver knows how to contact me, just in case. Be careful.”
Yves and Pierre unloaded their bags and walked to the SUV while Patrick taxied away, paused for a moment, then took off.
The driver took their bags, but Yves held on to his rifle case.
They reached the camp by nightfall, driving partially over dirt roads and through savanna grass. The driver also did not stay and said he would pick them up between seven and eight the next morning when they were expected to return from their expedition.
Pierre led Yves to the captain. All his twenty rangers roaming around in the base were fully armed uniformed soldiers. At 2.30 in the morning they would move through the bush to the rebel camp in Soudan, where Mombé had been spotted, and attack at the slightest emergence of daylight. The border between the Central African Republic and Soudan was invisible in this area. Only the road to Khartoum had small customs offices. First, Yves would focus on Mombé, kill him, and then the rangers would take care of his men. They’d confiscate whatever catches of ivory they could find, and pile it up for transport to their main base. Yves asked Pierre how the rangers would find their way in the dark. To his utter surprise they all had night goggles.
“The rangers battling the poachers are an elite group,” is all that Pierre said. Yves found this peculiar, but dropped further questions. It was to his advantage that the rangers were combat ready, whatever the motive.
The captain took Yves to a small tent where he spent a few uncomfortable hours. Insects bit his neck and cheeks and he kept slapping himself. About two thirty, Pierre entered and told him the captain was assembling his men.
“One question,” Yves said. “Why hire me for this job and not a sniper from the French army base in Bangui? They must know these rangers, perhaps even train them.”
“The Government doesn’t like the French,” Pierre said. “Come, we must go.”
Yves didn’t like the way Pierre brushed off his question, but at this point it didn’t make a difference.
They waded through high grass in pairs. Rangers up front used their machetes to cut away a path, but did so as silently as possible. After an hour walk, they stopped. The stench of rotting flesh filled the air. One ranger flashed his torch on the ground and they saw the speared carcass of an elephant, tusks removed. The elephant’s head was riddled with bullets.
Yves felt disgusted. His crime syndicate dismembered dead rivals, but elephants? All of a sudden he felt good about killing Mombé.
Moving the team forward some 50 yards in fresher air, the captain halted and sent out two scouts to check out Mombé’s camp and recommend a suitable shooting spot for Yves.
After half an hour they came back and talked in an indistinguishable language to the captain. Pierre and Yves joined him. The scouts had identified Mombé’s camp but there were guards. A large tree stood at the edge from where Yves could aim, but an SUV was parked underneath watched by a guard.
The captain selected two of his men to accompany Yves to eliminate the guard. One of the two scouts would lead the way. The captain handed Yves his flare gun to warn them if he got in trouble or when he had eliminated Mombé, which would be the signal to attack the camp. He ordered Pierre to stay behind as he wanted to limit as much as possible the chances of the advance team being detected.
Yves left with the three men in the dark and struggled for some fifteen minutes through high savanna grass and bush, until the scout raised his hand. Yves could see the curves of some tents and the shape of the roof of an SUV underneath an acacia tree. A guard stood leaning against the vehicle, his AK-47 resting beside him on the ground. The only way for Yves to climb that tree would be to kill the guard without a sound. He designated one of the rangers with a signal of slicing his neck. The ranger understood and left. A few minutes later he heard a soft gurgle, then silence. They kept huddling down in the grass, waiting for the ranger to return, hoping the gurgle had not alarmed anyone in the camp. Yves looked at his watch. Four thirty. Soon, dawn would break.
The ranger came back with a mean grin on his face, carrying the AK-47 as a trophy. Yves assembled his rifle from its case, slid the magazine in place and left, leaving the case with the scout. Ducking to stay covered, he arrived at the acacia tree and climbed up as high as he could. He counted several small tents. Mombé should hopefully be holed up in one of them. Two guards stood outside one, probably his. He adjusted his telescope and waited.
After five minutes which seemed hours, he heard mumbling and saw movements in one tent. Yves held his Remington ready. Two shirtless men came out of a tent and went to relieve themselves. Others followed. When would they discover that one of the guards had disappeared? There was no time left. First thing they would do was look at the SUV and then spot him right above and he would be toast. Where was Mombé? Was he or was he not in the camp?
Pearls of sweat formed on his forehead. The horizon was lightening up making him visible and when it would get brighter the poachers would shoot him out of the tree like a monkey. And if he didn’t shoot his flare gun, the rangers would attack the camp as soon as daylight broke, whether he’d shot Mombé or not, thinking he’d been caught or was dead.
A half-naked man came out of the tent where the two guards were keeping watch and went to the same place to relieve himself. It was Mombé. Yves aimed and shot him twice in the head. For a moment Mombé kept standing, then doubled over and fell forward. His guards, who’d given him his privacy, didn’t notice. Yves shot the flare gun twice and let himself almost fall from the tree, keeping his Remington in one hand but dropping the flare gun.
Immediate confusion reigned in the camp. Poachers frantically went for their rifles and looked around to shoot, but by then Yves had fled. Next, the rangers attacked and Yves heard loud shooting from all sides. Hiding in the high grass, he couldn’t see anything, but the fight lasted at least fifteen minutes. Then it became awfully quiet. Slowly, Yves moved up just enough to see what had happened. He came out of his hiding and walked into the camp. The rangers were walking amidst at least a dozen dead bodies.The surprise attack had been fully successful but the captain had lost two of his own. Yves shook his hand. “Bien fait,” he said. “It worked.” Pierre came along and shook his hand, too. One of the rangers photographed Mombé’s body.
Together with the captain, Yves and Pierre inspected the remainder of the camp. The captain pointed him to a heap of tusks stored for transport.
PHOTO TONY KARUMBA, AFP
“The booty,” he grumbled, shaking his head.
TO BE CONTINUED
HIT MAN ARRIVES
The airplane coming from Douala, Cameroon, shuddered, swayed and bumped while landing in a thunderstorm and hit the runway hard. The pilot scoffed that his poor landing was typical for the Boeing 737.
At the Bangui M’Poko airport terminal, Yves Bret, a lean brown-haired athletic man, and other passengers stumbled down a shaky metal stair truck, carrying their cabin bags, in pouring rain. Drenched, they stood in line for two operating immigration boots, in steaming heat, cooled by slowly moving ceiling fans. Their luggage bobbled soaking wet on a worn-out conveyor band.
A tall white man wearing a South-African ranger hat stood waiting in the arrival hall. Yves recognized him from the picture he’d sent.
“Pierre Lamont,” he said in French. “I’ll take you to your hotel. The Minister will receive you at 2:00 this afternoon. Your luggage is being taken care of.”
He meant Yve’s special case with his Remington XM sniper rifle inside that couldn’t go through customs.
Yves was casting himself as a reporter for a French paper sent to the Central African Republic to investigate the slaughter of elephants for contraband ivory sales, but his real mission was to kill a Sudanese rebel head who led his bands in this gruesome trade. Yves was known to be quick and efficient.
Yves’ parents were French-Algerian, nicknamed “pieds-noirs” (black feet) in France. Many of them fled to France after the French-Algerian colonial war that ended in 1962 with Algeria’s independence. Yves was five when he saw his parents shot by Algerian soldiers when they were trying to flee. An uncle of his with many children of his own took him to France but had put him in an orphanage in Toulouse. Yves had grown up as an angry young man and joined the French Foreign Legion in the hope he would be sent back to Algeria to kill as many Algerian soldiers as possible but it never happened. Because of his steady hand, excellent vision and bravery he was selected to become an elite sniper and served in Bosnia and Kosovo in 1994 and in the Central African Republic in 1996. Burned out as an army sergeant, he deserted because the money wasn’t good enough and he became a contract killer for a French crime syndicate, before offering himself free-lance. His work in the crime syndicate had made him ruthless and his handlers knew they could count on him.
His nick-name was Hit Man.
Deep in his heart he knew his parents would never have approved of his life. He cherished their picture his uncle had left him and kept it in his wallet. He’d shown it once to a girlfriend at secondary school in Toulouse, thinking he was in love with her, but as soon as she found out he was a “pied noir” she’d left him. After that incident, he always felt inferior approaching a French girl. His parents were from reputable families in Algeria, but in France he felt rejected and second class.
He had many kills behind him. Even though he knew that one day he would be killed himself, he had remained fearless, as he had nothing to lose, no family to speak of, no woman, and except the occasional pute, no real friends.
Pierre led him outside around the corner of the terminal to a small office to collect his special case. A man in casual dress handed it to him, unopened. Pierre drove him to the Sofitel, situated on a hill overlooking the idyllic Oubangui River that went all the way to Brazaville. The Democratic Republic of the Congo bordered the other side of the river. If anything went wrong in Bangui, he was set to flee somewhere down the river, using a fisherman’s pirogue.
At 2:00 p.m. he sat in a plastic leather chair in the Interior Minister’s anteroom, paneled with local tropical woods. A Central African national entered, dressed in a civil suit and tie. “Jean-Baptiste,” he introduced himself. Sitting opposite Yves, he went into complete silence, reading a magazine published by the Minister’s political party, not even looking at him. At the moment Yves wanted to break the ice to find out who he was, the hefty wooden door of the anteroom opened and a male assistant asked him to follow him into the Minister’s office. He got up, as did Jean-Baptiste.
The assistant assigned Yves a seat in front of the Minister’s desk, which shone empty of any clutter or even a smidgen of dust, then disappeared again through another heavy wooden door. Jean-Baptiste remained standing behind him. Yves assumed he was an aide of the Minister. The large office featured several wide windows looking out on the yard around the ministry, shadowed by half-dead-looking baobab trees.
Suddenly, the Minister entered and briskly sat at his desk. His broad face, dark eyes, and bald head painted an unscrupulous image. He held a ballpoint pen in his thick fingers and tapped it in a continuous rattle on a notebook full of black nervous scratches on the cover. Without small talk, the Minister said, “My assistant, Jean Baptiste, will take you to the airport later this afternoon. A small airplane will fly you and Monsieur Lamont to the north-east near the Sudanese border, about one hour and a half from here. Monsieur Lamont will give you information about your target in the plane. A driver will take you to the target area. I will expect you back here tomorrow morning at 11:00 a.m., mission accomplished, to receive the rest of your fee.”
“In Euros please, cash,” Yves said, staring at the Minister.
The Minister nodded, rose, and without further looking at Yves, exited the office through the same door.
Jean-Baptiste signaled Yves to come with him, walked to a grey Toyota Highlander in the parking lot in front of the Ministry, and drove him back to his hotel, saying he would pick him up one hour later.
In his room, overlooking the swimming pool, Yves sighted a few white women sunbathing, their bras off, and wearing minuscule thongs. A surge of lust shot through him. But, unfortunately, he had to change into military fatigue. He opened his duffel bag and got dressed for work, then inspected his Remington, gave it another cleaning, checked the trigger housing, magazine charger and optical scope, and shut it carefully back into its case, together with the night vision goggles he might need. He stuck his loaded pistolet mittrailleur MAT 49 he’d kept from the army in his inner pocket, in case he got double crossed, as was often the case in bandit land. From his previous experience as a “Legionnaire” in the Central African Republic in 1996, this was a necessary precaution.
Jean-Baptiste was sharply on time. He drove Yves to Bangui airport in less than fifteen minutes, passed through a heavy iron gate and stopped at a one-story office building. A couple of small planes stood parked aside.
“Monsieur Lamont is inside waiting for you, with the pilot,” he said. “Bonne chance. I’ll be here tomorrow morning as of ten to take you to the Minister.”
Inside the office, Pierre, also dressed in military fatigue, shook Yves’ hand and introduced him to the pilot as “Monsieur Yves, journaliste.” The pilot smirked, his eyes fixing Yves, probably thinking that someone in military fatigue didn’t look like the usual journalists he flew to the bush. His name was Patrick, he said. Square shoulders, average height, dark curly hair, rugged features. Yves guessed he was from the south of France.
The pilot guided them to his plane, a two-engine Cessna, and loaded their small bags into the shoot. Pierre sat with the pilot; Yves took a back seat.
The plane was fully equipped with a satellite system. Patrick started the engines, revving them up one by one, and punched in his beacons on the satellite board. Then he rolled to the runway, communicated with the tower and took off, heading north-east.
Underneath, the crowded patches of small corrugated roofed homes disappeared fast. Pierre reached into his brown leather shoulder bag, took out a brown envelope and handed it to Yves.
“Enclosed are the details. Take a good look.”
Several photographs of the Sudanese rebel leader showed up. Mombé Mwamba was his name. Tall, dressed in military fatigue, cap and boots, Ak-47 over his shoulders. His gangs, all heavily armed, operated in the Nyata-Ngaye zone, where bush elephants still roamed along the border with Sudan, near the Chinese-built road to Khartoum. Smugglers would ship the ivory to China’s new rich customers.
Jeune Afrique, Paris
Many elephants had been killed already lower down in the Zémongo reserve, also along the Sudanese border. Battles with poachers had been unsuccessful in stopping the assaults. Killing their leaders helped but not for long. But it gave the rangers, fighting to preserve wildlife for fauna and tourism, some time to regroup and strengthen their troops to pursue the unrelenting poachers with renewed vengeance.
Rangers were heavily armed as well. Their commander said it was outright war, but Mombé had always escaped into the bush when they attacked. A meticulous sharpshooter was needed to enter his camp to kill him before launching an attack. So that’s why they’d hired him? But why not get some sniper from the French army in Bangui? Would’ve been a lot cheaper. Was the Interior Minister averse of French meddling? Didn’t seem clear. He would ask Pierre when they were alone.
On arrival, a driver would take them to a rangers’ base. From there they would move through the savanna to track the poachers whose camp had recently been located.
He heard the pilot talking over his radio. The aircraft banked to the right, slowly descending.
”Birao,” Patrick announced.
Below, Yves spotted a small dirt landing strip. A bluish terrain SUV with a white roof stood waiting. Was it with him Patrick had communicated? The pilot made a brief circle, approached and touched down.
TO BE CONTINUED