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Authors: James Grenton

Black Coke

BOOK: Black Coke
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Black Coke
James Grenton
Contents

CHAPTERS

 

1
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2
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3
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4
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5
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6
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7
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8
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9
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10

 

11
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12
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13
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14
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15
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16
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17
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18
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19
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20

 

21
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22
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23
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24
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25
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26
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27
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28
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29
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30

 

31
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32
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33
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34
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35
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36
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37
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38
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39
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40

 

41
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42
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43
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44
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45
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46
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47
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48
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49
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50

 

51
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52
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53
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54
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55
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56
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57
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58
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59
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60

 

61
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62
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63
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64
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65
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66
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67
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68
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69
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70

 

71
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72
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73
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74
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75
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76
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77
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78
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79
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80

 

81
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82
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83
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84
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85
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86
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87
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88
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89
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90

 

91
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92
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93
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94
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95
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96
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97
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98
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99
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100
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101
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102
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103

 

Bibliography

 

Links to maps of Colombia

 

About the Author

 

Also by James Grenton

 

Copyright

 
Chapter 1

Putumayo, Colombia
30 March 2011

 

N
athan heard the helicopter gunships before he saw them. The chop chop chop of their rotor blades turned into a whir that soon obscured the midday chatter of the rainforest. Around him, the coca workers scattered. Some dived into their rickety clay and bamboo huts. Others huddled behind fallen tree trunks or under the tin-roofed cocaine laboratory. Narcotraffickers bristling with automatic weapons, grenades and ammo belts scurried around the encampment, barking orders and glancing at the sky. A group of them rushed to a rusty ex-army truck and started loading sacks of cocaine.

 

Manuel Rosa ran up to Nathan, his one good eye wide, the other covered by a black patch. He had deep wrinkles on his forehead as though he’d been born frowning. He was wearing green combat trousers and a ripped shirt that revealed his scarred muscular chest.

 

Four Apache helicopters burst through the gathering storm clouds, their Hellfire missiles hanging from their wings.

 

‘Death squads,’ Manuel shouted.

 

Nathan gritted his teeth. He’d been waiting for this.

 

‘How?’ he said.

 

‘Tip off.’ Manuel yanked Nathan’s arm. ‘Let’s go.’

 

As if in answer, 30mm chaingun fire chugged through the air, tearing through people and huts. Nathan hit the ground. He tugged his SLR camera from his rucksack and zoomed in. Three narcotraffickers on the far side of the clearing shuddered and ripped apart. The ground quaked. The truck vanished amid a cloud of fire and smoke and shards of red-hot metal. The gunships swept down. The flurry of their blades swept up branches, earth and leaves in whirlwinds that crashed into the huts.

 

This was no minor skirmish like the previous times. His heart pounding, Nathan followed Manuel, who was racing, head down, towards the relative safety of the rainforest. Just before reaching the trees, Nathan twisted round and lifted his camera again. Men in black balaclavas and combat gear hung from Lynx helicopters, which were coming in behind the Apaches. They jumped to the ground, spraying the encampment with automatic gunfire.

 

‘Come!’ Manuel grabbed Nathan’s arm again.

 

‘Just a sec, mate.’ Nathan switched the camera to fast continuous mode. ‘I need the pics.’

 

A bullet whizzed past, spraying bark as it hit a tree. Another bullet grazed Nathan’s shirt arm.

 

Maybe it
was
time to go.

 

He sprinted after Manuel, jumping over dead tree trunks and ducking under low branches. He skidded in a pool of mud, collided with a tree, leapt to his feet, kept running, sweat pouring down his forehead. Behind them, the shooting and screams intensified. Explosions erupted as the missiles rained down. Gunfire crackled like fireworks. They must have hit the ammo store.

 

A blur of movement. A shadow in the undergrowth. Nathan’s training kicked in before he even realised it. He whipped out his pistol. A paramilitary in black combat gear burst out in front of him. Nathan pointed his pistol at the man’s head.

 

‘Drop your weapon!’ he yelled.

 

The paramilitary spun round, saw Nathan, hesitated.

 

‘Drop it. Now!’

 

The paramilitary let his M-16 assault rifle fall to the ground.

 

‘Hands in the air,’ Nathan said, bending down slowly and cautiously to pick up the rifle, pistol still pointed at the paramilitary. He wanted to shoot, to kill the man, to make him pay for the atrocities he’d seen the paramilitaries commit, but something held him back. He backed off and chased after Manuel, who glared at him.

 

They sank further into the murky interior of the forest. The roar of the battle faded. The undergrowth swallowed them up like a hungry beast. This was secondary jungle: thick, tangled vegetation that had sprung up after the primary jungle, with its valuable tropical hardwoods, had been logged years ago and then replaced with now abandoned coca fields. The air was thick, humid and heavy. Nathan’s clothes were drenched with sweat and stuck to his body like cling film, making each step feel like he was wading through glue. Manuel pulled out his machete. He hacked a way through vines and leaves and low-hanging branches. He looked even grimmer than usual. He kept glaring at Nathan, who shrugged it off. He was used to Manuel’s dark moods by now.

 

Whoosh. Bang.

 

It was the ballistic crack of a high velocity bullet. Nathan dropped to the floor.

 

‘Behind us!’ he shouted.

 

He strained his eyes and lifted his M-16. All he could see was a dizzying variety of greens and browns. Manuel was breathing heavily next to him.

 

‘Maybe a stray shot,’ Nathan said after a few minutes. Manuel began to rise.

 

Whoosh. Bang.

 

Nathan yanked Manuel to the ground. ‘Crawl. I’ll cover.’

 

Manuel slid off with the ease of a snake. Nathan waited, his rifle scanning the dense web of vegetation. No more shots. Whoever it was must have continued their journey. He crawled after Manuel.

 

They marched for hours, clambering over moss-covered boulders and slipping into v-shaped valleys with cascading waterfalls and lush vegetation. They waded through murky, stagnant swamps and clear, fast-flowing streams. After a while, they paused by a river. Nathan rubbed his eyes and felt the nervous energy of the escape seep away, replaced by a deep sense of weariness. He was still breathing hard, so he sat back on his heels and leaned against a tree. This trip had turned out to be more than he’d bargained for.

 

He checked the pictures on his camera. Some were blurred. Others were too dark, the automatic exposure settings confused by the mixture of bright sunlight and dark shadows of the jungle. Still, a few of them were good enough. If this didn’t convince the guys back home, then nothing would. He put his camera in his rucksack and knelt by the river. He splashed water on his face and tried to scrape off the dried mud, sweat and grime that caked his forehead. But it was stuck there, like a facemask that had become part of his skin. He shrugged and studied his shimmering reflection: the long, curly brown hair that hung in knots around his bushy beard, the blood-shot eyes that hadn’t seen a good night’s sleep in weeks, the sun-burnt, cracked lips. He looked like a caveman.

 

‘No time for a wash,’ Manuel said, studying Nathan with a suspicious look. ‘Too dangerous here.’

 

They trudged on, until, eventually, Manuel leaned against a tree that rose from the earth like a cathedral of trunks and branches. The already gloomy atmosphere of the jungle intensified as the sun dropped. Hordes of winged insects buzzed around in circles.

 

‘We stop here,’ Manuel said.

 

Nathan bent over, his forearms resting on his knees.

 

‘Bloody hell,’ he said between breaths.

 

‘Nathan, I think you’ve got some explaining to do.’

 

Nathan glanced up.

 

Manuel was pointing a gun straight at him.

 
Chapter 2

Putumayo, Colombia
30 March 2011

 

N
athan raised his hands, dropping his M-16, which sank into the mud with a soft squelch. Manuel had a distrustful look on his young face. Coils of his long black hair were glued to his cheeks with sweat. Despite being one head shorter than Nathan, he had a tough wiriness to his body that only years of surviving in the jungle could bring.

 

‘Where did you learn to use a gun?’ Manuel’s mouth barely moved as he spoke. ‘You said you were a photographer for an NGO.’

 

‘I am a photographer.’

 

‘How come you fight so well?’

 

Nathan pursed his lips. So this was what Manuel had been unhappy about. He had to pick his words carefully or it could get rather complicated.

 

‘My dad was a pistol instructor,’ Nathan said, slowly putting his hands back down. ‘I went to the shooting range with him every weekend.’

 

Better to rely on the truth, even if it wasn’t the whole story.

 

‘Why the hidden gun?’ Manuel said.

 

‘Hey, this is Colombia.’ Nathan shrugged in a manner he hoped looked calm and confident. ‘Doesn’t everyone have a gun here?’

 

‘I’m happy to help your NGO.’ Manuel lowered his rifle. ‘But not if you’re CIA or DEA.’

 

‘I’m a Brit. Not American.’

 

‘Same thing.’

 

‘After all this time together, I thought we were friends.’

 

‘Friends?’ Manuel shook his head as though that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.

 

Nathan waited for Manuel to turn round and start walking. Then he bent down to pick up the M-16. He brushed off the mud and checked the firing mechanism. Satisfied it worked properly, he hurried after Manuel.

 

‘Who tipped them off?’ Nathan said.

 

Manuel shrugged.

 

‘Front 154?’

 

Manuel spun round. ‘What did you say?’

 

‘Was it the Front?’

 

‘I dunno what you’re talking about.’

 

‘Right. I see.’

 

‘You see nothing.’

 

‘I meant—’

 

Manuel grunted and trudged away. Nathan shook his head and crushed a black beetle that was crawling over a pile of dead leaves. How the hell was he going to find out more about the Front if nobody was willing to talk about it? He needed facts he could bring home as proof of the Front’s activities, not just pictures. It had been difficult enough convincing his boss, Cedric, to let him come out here. He needed something substantial to show for it.

 

He glanced up. Manuel was fast disappearing into the undergrowth. He hurried after him, feeling annoyed and frustrated. They kept trekking, the forest slipping away into rolling hills, the occasional tuft of white cloud hugging a hilltop like an old man’s beard.

 

Nathan felt a stab in his ankle. He pincered a large beetle that was delving into his damp socks. He grimaced. He didn’t particularly like bugs, and this one was an impressive specimen. It had a glossy black back and was shaped like an eight, with the top half smaller than the bottom. Its five curved pincers—three above and two below—were each two inches long and lined with rows of sharp teeth like the jagged edge of a saw. Its six thin legs ended in claws that flailed around. Its head was brimming with more antennae than a TV news van.

BOOK: Black Coke
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ads

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