As dawn approached the Chollokwan voices faded, receding into the forest along with the morning mists. But this time, the rising sun brought no feeling of safety or redemption, no false sense of relief, only the stark realization of how bad things really were.
Shell casings littered the ground by the hundreds, scattered like cigarette butts from some mad smokers’ convention. Burned-out flares lay in small heaps of ash amid circles of blackened earth while the piles of stone loomed like rubble between ugly eruptions of sharpened steel. The tents they’d once slept in were little more than shredded lengths of nylon, jagged strips hanging limply from mangled frames. Farther out, the drums of kerosene crackled and burned, belching thick, oily smoke and fouling the air with acrid fumes.
In this harsh morning light, the clearing showed itself for what it was, for what it had always been, a wasteland, a graveyard, a malignant spot in the middle of paradise, where nothing lived and nothing grew. As the Nuree had insisted, it was a place that had been rejected by life itself.
Still, with a respite from the attacks, the survivors took the chance to recover and sleep, dozing in shifts, with their loaded weapons beside them, waiting for the next phase to begin and hoping somehow that it would not. They’d barely survived through twelve hours; most wondered how the hell they would last through sixty more.
At noon the shift changed and Hawker took the lead watch from Verhoven.
“Break time,” Hawker said.
“Uh-hm,” Verhoven replied, as he set the safety on his weapon.
Verhoven wasn’t a man given to deep reflection, things were what they were in his world, but Hawker sensed a thorn in the man’s side somewhere.
“Something wrong?” Hawker asked.
“Been counting ammo,” Verhoven said. “Another night like the last one and we’ll run dry before the sun comes up.”
Hawker hadn’t taken the time to inventory things, but he sensed the same thing. If the animals continued their onslaught unabated, it would be a war of attrition that the humans could not win. “We’ll have to be more sparing in what we use,” Hawker replied.
“They’re wild, Hawk,” Verhoven said. “Even Danielle, who’s a hell of a shot, uses too much ammo. And the others are all over the place.”
“They’re afraid,” Hawker said. “They’ll be a little better tonight.”
Verhoven looked at the ground for a second and then back at Hawker. “If they’re not, I’m taking the guns out of their hands. I don’t care what they say. If it comes to that, you and I will do the firing. No one else. Better they be pissed off and alive than empowered and dead.”
Hawker hesitated a second. He doubted Danielle would give up her gun, but the others would not fight the logic. He nodded, and Verhoven turned and walked off.
A few minutes later Danielle approached him with the medi-kit in her hand.
“I can only hope you’re going to examine me,” he said.
“Much as you’d like me to,” she said. “There’s a lot more wrong with you than I could fix.”
“We do have a problem, though.”
“Really,” he said, looking around, “because I hadn’t noticed.”
“Kaufman,” she explained.
He stared at her for a second. It was like she’d read his mind. “Yeah, Kaufman.”
She explained. “Without that son of a bitch to send up his flare pattern, who knows if his helicopter will land. That means no extraction, no free ride home.”
“I thought about that,” he admitted, “although I wasn’t sure he was telling the truth with that story to begin with. You use flares to draw attention to yourself when someone’s looking for you. Kind of odd to use them for a party that already knows where you are. More likely you’d use smoke. That would keep any distant observers from locking in on the position and it would give the pilot localized info and wind direction as well.”
She nodded. “Seemed a little odd to me as well. My guess is: Kaufman was either lying or he didn’t know, and he made up that story to give himself some type of residual value and reduce the chances of being shot at sunrise. He was a bastard but he was smart.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But now what? If we pop the wrong color smoke, or shoot the wrong flare it could scare off the pilot. It might be better to do nothing, let his curiosity bring him in closer. We can dig up Kaufman’s people and put on their uniforms.” Hawker looked out to where he and McCarter had buried the dead mercenaries. “If the pilot sees us like that, he might land … or he might just strafe us as he flies past and then head off into the distance.”
“I’m not real interested in going through that again,” she said. “But the only alternative is five days in the jungle. Choose your poison.”
After the night they’d just lived through, Hawker had no desire to face even one of those things in the tangled darkness of the rain forest. He guessed that the helicopter would come back, but it was a coin flip as to whether they’d last that long and another question altogether as to what would happen after that. Still, two days in the well-defended clearing and a fifty-fifty shot seemed like better odds than four or five days trudging through the jungle.
Either Danielle sensed this or had come to the same conclusion. “Let’s wait,” she said. “And let’s keep this from the others.”
Hawker nodded, and noticed McCarter walking toward them. The professor had bled through the dressing on his arm. “Looks like you’ve got another patient.”
McCarter took a seat and tried to hold still as Danielle cut the gauze from his arm. He seemed distraught to Hawker, almost despondent.
“Rough night?” Hawker asked, trying to lighten his mood.
McCarter did not respond directly. “When my wife was sick,” he said finally, “there were nights, during the chemo, that I would hear her throwing up violently in the bathroom down the hall. Dry heaves for what seemed like hours, and then she’d rest against the closed door, and it would rattle as she shivered.”
He closed his eyes for a second and choked back a lump in his throat. “But she didn’t want my help or my pity,” he said at last. “She just wanted to be well again. And in her mind, as long as I didn’t hear, she could pretend it was working, she could pretend that she was getting better. So I would lie there, hour after hour, fighting every urge in my body to run to her, so we could both pretend she wasn’t dying.
“That’s what last night felt like to me,” he explained. “Like a message being delivered over and over again and we’re all pretending not to hear it, all pretending like we’re not going to die.”
As McCarter finished, he and Danielle exchanged looks and they seemed to make some kind of connection. Hawker didn’t know what it was, but as much death as he’d seen in his life, most of it had been mercifully quick. He was thankful for that.
“But tonight will be more of the same,” McCarter replied.
“Maybe,” Hawker said. “Maybe not. In any fight, things always look worse from your perspective. All you see are your own losses but none of your enemies’. Your mind tells you he’s still at full strength, when undoubtedly he’s weakened.”
Hawker pointed out into the jungle. “We didn’t do so bad last night. We’re alive. And we lit those things up pretty good. Some of them are going to die off, others will lick their wounds and stay away, and that means less of them around to bother us tonight.”
That thought seemed to bolster McCarter. “That makes sense,” he said. “But they will be coming back.”
“Yeah,” Hawker said. “I’m guessing they will. We just have to make sure we’re ready for them this time. More ready than we were yesterday.”
“And how do we do that?” McCarter asked.
“First off, we need to do some research,” Hawker said.
McCarter’s face brightened. “Research,” he said. “I like research. What are you thinking?”
“Yeah,” Danielle said suspiciously as she wrapped McCarter’s arm in new gauze. “What are you thinking?”
Hawker pointed toward the forest again. “We have to go out there and poke around in the trees for a bit. Take a look at a few things.”
Danielle laughed as she finished taping off his new bandage.
“No, seriously,” he said. “I always have the assistants do it for me.”
“Nice try,” she told him. “But he suckered you on that one.”
A minute later Hawker and McCarter were grabbing two radios. The first one sounded intermittent and weak.
Hawker grabbed a second one and clicked the mike; it seemed to be working. “This one’s good.”
“Try to make it last,” Danielle said. “The charger’s down.”
Hawker clipped the radio to his belt. “Great,” he said. “We’ll be living like the Amish soon.”
Danielle watched as Hawker grabbed his rifle and led a reluctant, but far more positive Professor McCarter across the clearing. Despite his humor she sensed a great weight on Hawker’s shoulders, the weight of expectations put upon him by the others. They looked to him for hope, trusting him to get them home. As long as he believed they could survive, then they believed it too, but if he faltered or hedged his words, they would sense it and their own hearts would fall.
As he walked toward the trees, she found herself thinking about him on a deeper level and wondering how he’d become who he was. And she found herself sitting next to the one person in the world who probably knew the answer.
She turned to Verhoven, who sat on the edge of his foxhole, awkwardly loading clips with his one good hand. “Tell me about Hawker,” she said.
Verhoven looked up briefly and then went back to the task at hand. He didn’t seem interested.
She produced a tin of tobacco, one Kaufman’s people had taken from him. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Verhoven cut his eyes at her, a sly grin on his face suggesting he appreciated her style of bargaining. “What do you want to know?”
She handed him the container. “You worked together before, right?”
“A long time back.”
“So what happened? How’d you become enemies?”
Verhoven’s leathery face wrinkled as he pulled a wad of dark tobacco from the container and shoved it into the side of his mouth. “I tried to kill him,” he said plainly.
Danielle was shocked. She’d guessed at some type of pride-filled argument, a strategic disagreement, a fight over money or action or even a girl.
“Or so he thinks,” Verhoven elaborated.
“Why would he think that?” she asked.
Verhoven exhaled grumpily before continuing. “At one time Hawker and I were friends,” he said. “Good friends, despite our differences. We were working in Angola, Hawker with the CIA, me with South African Special Forces. Our job was to stir up resistance to the regime that had been oppressing the place for thirty years. It was a hell of a job, it always is out there. Eventually Hawker made some choices that put him in opposition to everyone he knew, including me.”
“I know a little bit of it,” she said. “I know he violated some orders.”
Verhoven spat the first shot of tobacco juice onto the ground. The act seemed to bring him great joy. “There are orders,” he said, “and then there are orders. Some are even given with the expectation that they’ll be disregarded, especially in that world. But others are the law.”
“Hawker disobeyed the wrong kind.”
Verhoven put the can of tobacco into his breast pocket, picked up a new clip to load.
“Yes,” he said. “But it’s not that simple really. To understand what happened, to really understand, you have to first understand Africa.”
He shoved another cartridge into place. “Aside from my country, most of the continent exists in a state of intractable, cyclical anarchy. Show me a nation, I’ll show you a war. Show me another, I’ll show you a genocide or two. Angola was no different. The CIA had been there for decades, most of it spent supporting a lunatic named Jonas Savimbi. By the time Hawker got there they’d realized that the man was no better than a mad killer. So they began to diversify. Hawker and I worked with the smaller groups, the ones not linked to Savimbi. In any other place they would have been allies, united against a common enemy, but reason and logic mean precious little in Africa, and Savimbi saw that as a threat. And so a deal was struck, the kind that leaves certain parties out in the cold.”
“Your parties,” she guessed.
Verhoven nodded. “The money was to stop, the guns were to stop and the tribes Hawker and I had been working with were to be left on their own, to fend for themselves with an entire division of the Angolan army bearing down on them, smelling blood and looking for someone to make an example out of.”
So that was the order Hawker had disobeyed. Of course it wasn’t in the file; it would never be officially written in the first place. “And Hawker kept arming them,” she guessed.
“As best he could,” Verhoven said. “He’d made fast friends with them. Given his word. So he went outside the ropes, buying guns and weapons on the Agency’s account, and stealing them after the Agency cut him off.”
Verhoven paused in the narrative to load a few more shells. “Your government didn’t like that much and they asked us to stop him and bring him in. Well, we did, eventually. And while Hawker sat rotting in one of my camps, the Angolans massacred those people.”
Danielle looked away, feeling ill.
Verhoven continued. “While the CIA tried to figure out what to do with him, a man named Roche walked into Hawker’s cell and shot him in the chest. Hawker thinks I ordered it.”
“Why would he think that?” she asked.
“Officially, Roche was under my command,” Verhoven said. “In reality, he took orders from someone in Pretoria. It seems my people and I had been involved with Hawker for too long to be trusted with the real job of catching him. So Roche and his special team came out to do the job, but for the better part of a year Hawker made them look like fools, hiding, moving, even getting away from a sting Roche had set up with the weapons and the money. As it looked, Roche was about to be replaced when he finally succeeded.”
Verhoven sucked at his teeth and his voice turned. “The first time I saw Hawker after Roche caught him, I barely recognized him. They’d beat him to a bloody mess.”
“You couldn’t stop it?” she asked.
Verhoven glared at her coldly. “I told you, Roche didn’t answer to me.”
Danielle leaned back, taking a deep breath and scuffing the dirt at the bottom of the foxhole with her boot.
On Verhoven’s side another shell went into the clip, another shot of tobacco juice into the dirt.
“How did it go down?” she asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” he said. “I heard a shot and when I came in I found Hawker on the ground bleeding from the chest. Roche was standing there with his pistol, babbling something about Hawker escaping, but Hawker was still chained to the bloody rail. I almost killed Roche right there and then. As it was, I beat him half-senseless with his own gun—and I would have finished the job too, but one of his people came in and stopped me. Apparently there was a more pressing issue—the CIA had someone on the way out to collect Hawker that very afternoon. I think Roche expected them to let Hawker off and he couldn’t stand the thought. So he snapped.”
Verhoven shook his head recalling the events. “I checked Hawker myself and he was dead. I mean, he was blue and without a pulse. You know? We couldn’t turn him over to the Americans like that, so we put him in the back of a jeep, drove him out a couple of miles into the scrub and dumped him there. We told the American counsel he’d escaped.”
A smile crept onto Verhoven’s craggy face. “The irony was, Roche couldn’t tell anyone he’d shot Hawker or they’d have hung him. So he had to pretend that Hawker had beaten him to a pulp and escaped once again. It drove him mad.”
“How did Hawker survive?”
Verhoven shrugged. “Don’t know. Didn’t know he had for a while. A couple months later I started hearing rumors of an American working the arms trade on the West African coast. Not too many whites out there, even fewer Americans. A few months after that, the CIA sent me a surveillance photo to examine. It had been taken the week before in Liberia. It was Hawker, clear as day.”
Danielle grinned. “What did you do?”
“What the hell could I do?” he said. “I smiled actually, and then I cringed. By that time I was on my way out anyhow. My country had gone through its change a few years before and things were different. The truth squad was coming my way, you know?”
Danielle nodded, remembering the history of post-apartheid South Africa. “What happened to Roche?”
“A few years later, he took a walk off the top of a skyscraper in downtown Johannesburg.” Verhoven raised his eyebrows. “Twenty-story kiss to the concrete.”
Verhoven shrugged. “Roche had a lot of enemies,” he said. “By then, he’d joined the trade himself, but he was known as a skimmer; always looking to leave a few men behind just to up his share of the take. So maybe it wasn’t Hawker—or maybe it was, doing the rest of us a favor.”
Verhoven looked out toward Hawker in the distance. “All I know for sure is that everyone involved in that mess has died in one bloody way or another—shot and killed or blown to hell. Every one of those sons of bitches that Roche used, they’re all dead now.”
Verhoven turned back toward Danielle. “So, thinking what Hawk thinks, and knowing that I dumped him in the desert, I’d expect he’s got a bullet in that gun for me, somewhere.” He shoved one last cartridge into the clip he was loading. “And who knows, maybe I’ve got one for him too.”
Silence hung in the air, with Danielle and Verhoven staring at each other, until the radio squawked beside them. “Anyone awake back there?”
Danielle grabbed it. “Go ahead, Hawker. What have you got?”
“Missing bodies. Looks like those things dug up the men we buried. So much for putting on their uniforms.”
Danielle made a sour face. “Wasn’t really looking forward to that anyway.”
“Yeah, me neither. Looks like they took the animal I killed too.”
“Scavengers as well as predators.”
“Seems that way. Listen, we’re almost to the trees. Before we get in there I want to make sure the area’s clear.”
Danielle checked the laptop screen one more time; some of the pixels were beginning to drop out. “There’s nothing on the screen,” she said. “For whatever that’s worth.”
A double click let her know he copied and she turned back to Verhoven. She now understood Hawker’s anger with the system, with orders and those who gave them. “When this is over, let me talk to him,” she said. “Let me try to explain it. I owe both of you at least that much.”