Chapter 51: Bye, Castaways

The road quickly ended after a few kilometres and was replaced by a man-made desert sparsely populated by tree stumps, a sad reminder of the excessive cutting of trees throughout the country.  From her elevated position at the back of the truck, Celina was remembering an article from the National Geographic about deforestation and how the rain forests of the world could be gone within a hundred years due to slash-and-burn, a quick and harmful method used by farmers, and she wondered how old the article was, because, by the looks of things, it seemed that it was already halfway there, and the thought of it made her sad.  They continued on the same road for almost two hours as the horror of the devastation gradually gave way to hectares of poorly-maintained farmlands, when Jack’s head popped out of the window and shouted at them.

“I think the driver says we need to stop for fuel soon—at least that’s what I understand,“ said Jack, mindful that his French was only limited to the phrase voulez-vous coucher avec moi, and that he had to rely primarily on nonverbal cues to actually understand anything from the driver.

“Jack, have you seen the devastation of that forest?” Celina asked, still visibly distraught at what she had seen in the course of the trip.

“Celina, I’m not much of a tree hugger, and yes, Eirik, I believe that scuba divers should take artefacts from the wrecks because leaving them down there only for other divers makes no sense,” shouted Jack over the sound of the badly tuned engine.  “Anyway, he is calling someone to arrange that.  Not many gas stops in the area, I suppose.”

 

“I guess not,” acknowledged Celina.  The respect she had built up for him in the past few days was quickly vanishing with the forest all around.

The truck left the road at a junction and turned into a dirt road which consisted of two potholed tracks with dry grass in the middle, which Jack had already concluded would have been only usable by all-terrain vehicles—at least definitely not by a three-ton truck carrying what must be some pretty frightened chickens.  As far as they could guess, they travelled for less than two kilometres before reaching a 40-foot shipping container, equipped with windows and a metal door which had remained open no doubt for air circulation.  From the side they were approaching, Jack could see what looked like a large circular tank that seemed more popular for propane than gasoline, at least back home, he thought.  In front of it was a makeshift pump with a manual lever and a rusted nozzle.  The driver took four, turned to point back in the manner they had arrived, and positioned for refuelling.

The driver went out first and went inside the container where African-sounding words which Jack didn’t understand were exchanged, and Eirik and Celina were too far to hear them.  Jack stared lazily at the makeshift container office in front of him and shifted his eyes on the side mirror to check on Celina and Eirik.  As he lifted his eyes back to the office’s doorway, everything seemed to have happened in an instant:    The driver re-emerged bearing something that Jack recognized at once, but he was too stunned to react and just instinctively raised his hand, forgetting that he was armed and was still protected by the hood and the engine block.  The rapid and the unmistakeable short bursts of AK-47 rounds resounded in the empty field all around them as three more men appeared.  Two more men appeared from the container just behind the driver, and another emerged from behind the trees in front of Celina and Eirik, who were both caught flatfooted by the sudden turn of events around them and the semi-automatic blast of the Russian assault rifle.

The fourth man, also armed with an AK-47, had quickly urged Celina and Eirik to get down from the back of the truck and drop to the ground face-down, and was now standing on top of them with his weapon pointed at their backs and commanding them not to move, which they obeyed out of fear.  The driver pointed the muzzle of his rifle at Jack and motioned him to get out of the truck and join his friends on the ground.  He didn’t get off his seat at first as he tried to negotiate, but since the only French phrase he knew was limited to a one-liner from a 1970s song, he struggled to explain in gestures that they had money and that they would be cooperating.

“Don’t shoot.  We have a little more gold and a lot of camping equipment.  It’s all yours,” said Celina as calmly as she could in perfect French.  “You can take them and let us go, okay?”

“Tell the American to get down, now!” said the driver.  “I’m a soldier and I have killed many.  All sorts of people; one more is no problem.”

She didn’t bother translating the threats; only the command to get down.  But Jack was still not moving, now remembering that he had his gun now relocated on his lower back under his belt.  “Tell him I have a gun and I will take it out slowly and drop it on the ground,” said Jack.

She translated his words, but that created more excitement, exactly the opposite he had wished.  But as he tried to take his hand to extract the Glock from his back, the two guys and the driver facing him were now looking at each other nervously and making rough gestures with their guns, enough to stop him from taking a chance of making his hand disappear behind his back.  As he eyed the three men in front of him, he saw two trucks were approaching in his field of vision.  He had seen them before, but his mind had not registered them somehow.  Now that it was less than twenty metres from them and slowing down, he had noticed it.  The front was unmistakeable even at a distance; a newer model of Land Rover he was familiar with.  Everything around him somewhat quieted down, mainly because he was no longer reaching for his gun.  He saw that the driver too had seen it and was pointing at his men to turn around and they did, but without taking their weapons off Jack’s chest.  The clean, black vehicles were in contrast with the surrounding terrain as they stopped a few metres to the passenger’s side of the truck.

The windows were completely black and no one inside could be seen.  Jack would have been frightened at the arrival of the new vehicles, but he somehow felt reassured by its familiarity and its cleanliness.  He was judging the book by its cover.  A mechanical sound of sliding was heard, but he couldn’t make it out and the side windows didn’t seem to have been opened.  He heard several more sounds which he couldn’t make out either, and then he saw them come:  Cylinders, shaped conspicuously like black cans of soft drinks, were thrown in the air through the opened sunroof of both vehicles at the same time.  Shots were fired from the AK-47 in the direction of the first Rover, directly at its windshield and at the front of the engine.  In less than a second, the sound of automatic gunfire stopped, only to be replaced by screams of violent pain as an intense flash of light flooded their vision, followed sharply by a loud bang which sent them all reeling.  Sporadic, disembodied gunshots permeated the deafening ringing in their ears, but they were too disoriented to pinpoint where the shots were coming from.  Erik and Celina were the first to recover, being the farthest from the impact, but as the shock of the stun grenades slowly subsided, they confirmed that shots had indeed been fired as they came face to face with the decapitated head of their would-be captor.  The man was lying on his side, the torn skin of his face hanging loosely like a discarded mask on the dirt amidst an amorphous puddle of blood and half-disintegrated gray matter.  Eirik looked behind to hide from the gruesome scene that made his stomach turn, and he discovered what had done this:  Masked mercenaries.

Three men with ski masks were walking quickly to and fro, rounding up the other three systematically and driving them to their knees with rifle butts to the back of their knees and forcing their hands on top of their heads.  Two of the captors then divested the hapless men of their weapons, starting with the assault rifles followed by the spare ammunition and bladed weapons, and tossed everything into a nearby ditch as the third one stood guard facing them.

The man in front started to pace slowly in front of them as he fixed his cold gaze on them one by one.  “What have you taken from them?” he asked, as he turned around and slowly paced back to the other end of the short line of captives.  He was dressed in a black tactical suit of light material.  His French was accented but understandable, by Celina’s standards.

Jack recognized the gun that the man possessed:  An M249 light machine gun.  It dawned on him that these were the same men he had seen in the jungle.  Why only three?  Are they the same group?  Or maybe they are the same people but more are actually waiting inside the trucks, he thought.  He wanted to ask, but felt that the time for explanation would soon come, so he remained silent.  No one was paying attention to them.  The group had essentially split into two and the remaining two were walking menacingly around the scene with their guns drawn, and Jack was sure he would hear an “All clear” soon.

“I have not taken anything, only money to take them to the city centre,” replied the driver even if the question was not directed at him.  “The gold and US dollars are in my pocket.  Take it, okay.”

“This must hurt?” asked one of the men rhetorically as he walked casually towards one of the kneeling prisoners and prodded its wrist with the muzzle of his submachine gun.  The others returned and announced the “all clear” as Jack had predicted..

“His injury is not life-threatening, but his wrist is broken,” said the same man, now inspecting the kneeling captive who winced audibly at the unwelcome perusal.

“Don’t touch him with your bare hands.  This baby rapist likely has AIDS,.” said the interrogator.  “Besides, he will not suffer for long.  No point of keeping live stocks.”

“Orders are orders,” said the third man as he nodded at the interrogator.

“Okay, then.”   The man who was examining the fracture took several steps back and fired three consecutive shots at the prisoners without warning.  He had shot all three in the back of their heads so fast that the third body almost hit the dirt at the same time as the first.

The three kneeling men had just been dispatched with the efficiency of a slaughterhouse worker used to the mechanical movement of a captive bolt pistol placed at the forehead of his meat-to-be, pushing the trigger with frightening ease.  As the Castaways watched the scene that was taking place, they realized that, like the slaughterhouse worker, he too would return home without the slightest remorse for doing his job.

As with a seller finishing with one customer and turning to serve another, the interrogator turned his attention toward Eirik and Celina.  The two were slowly picking themselves up, but Eirik fell down to his knees and threw up.  Celina instinctively glanced at Eirik as the latter heaved the contents of his guts onto the dirt.  She didn’t pay much attention to him, still being in a bit of disarray herself, and walked shakily a few steps away from the direction of her former captors who now lay face down in a pool of their own blood.  She was staring at them like she had just seen a ghost, but that was normal, wasn’t it?  She was used to dead bodies, but only dry ones, she thought.  However, these were fresh and breathing a minute ago.

“Don’t worry about them, Miss Miller.  They are not going anywhere,” offered the interrogator.  “Let’s get your stuff and leave this God-forsaken place.”

It took her a few seconds to realize that they knew her name and that thought of it somewhat renewed her fear.

“How did you know her name?” asked Jack.

“We are friends, Mr. Tomas.  We are here to take you back to Norway,” continued the interrogator whom Jack concluded must be the leader.

“We have a satellite phone.  Why have you not called us on it?  In fact, why hasn’t anyone else tried?” asked Celina.

The leader, seeing that the Castaways were suspicious, looked at his subordinates and everyone understood what needed to be done.