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Authors: John Harris

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The Mercenaries

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THE MERCENARIES
John Harris

 

First published by Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd 1969

© John Harris 1969

Arrow Books

ISBN 0 09 912990

 

Part One

 

1

 

Floating low over the perimeter of the aerodrome, the elderly rebuilt RE8, a relic of the 1914-18 war, flashed a golden fire as the doped surface of its enormous top wing caught the sun. In the distance, beyond the foothills, the stupendous, snowcapped summits of Kilimanjaro stood out of the tawny-coloured Serengetti plain.

As the lumbering old machine, with its queer bent-in-the-middle profile, banked, throttled back, over the thorn trees, a mixed herd of hartebeest and zebra lifted their heads at the sound of the engine. For a second the machine was reflected in the river whose presence was marked by a belt of darkly fringed trees rising out of the light green of the surrounding acacias, then its shadow, star-shaped, began to speed over the red sunbaked ground, leap-frogging among the mimosas and camel thorn.

The hartebeest and the zebra and a couple of giraffe among the tall papyrus flicked their ears, then one of the zebra on the edge of the herd began to canter. It was joined by a second, then a third and a fourth, until the whole herd was bolting hell for leather towards the river, trailing a huge cloud of golden dust.

From the far side of the field, near a group of shabby huts that caught the golden glow of the afternoon sun, Ira Penaluna watched the old machine above the dwindling dust cloud with narrowed eyes. A cast-off from artillery spotting above the trenches in France and Flanders, the Harry Tate had become part of the East African army of General Smuts, and finally found its way to Rhodesia; and it had been there that he had acquired it for the carrying company he had started in the hope of introducing the new form of air transport to post-war Africa.

He might have chosen better, he thought wryly, because the RE8, unattractive with its overhanging top planes and its reputation for instability, had become notorious as an indifferent performer--even in a war that had been full of bad aeroplanes. But there had been no better. Surplus machines of the latest types had been sold for a song in Europe, but he had arrived there too late and not only the machines but the routes had been snapped up; and coming to Africa he had had to make do with what he could find.

As he stared up at it, he became aware of a Lancia, with a high-backed tonneau from which the hood had been stripped, turning through the bush from the road behind the huts and beginning to head towards him, its front wheels wobbling over the uneven ground. He glanced at it for a second, then turned his attention again to the aeroplane, a stocky young man in unpressed khaki slacks and a leather coat stained with castor oil. Standing with a flying helmet hanging from his hand, he was a striking figure, with the cornflower-blue eyes of the West Country and a mop of black hair that indicated the steep Cornish hills from which his family had descended, but his features, which had once been good-looking, now had a distinctly lopsided look that came from a scarred chin and a broken nose, both relics of forced landings in France.

Ira Abel Penaluna had started his air carrying company in Africa with high hopes after the Great War in Europe, knowing that after nearly four years of front-line flying he couldn’t ever go back to the drab routine of the solicitor’s office where he’d been an articled clerk. In any case, threatened with the sack in 1915 because his hands were grimy with the oil from the old Douglas motor-cycle he always drove like a lunatic, he’d broken his agreements by charging off in a fury to join the Royal Engineers as a boy bugler, in the hope that they’d make him a despatch rider and send him to France. Fortunately for both the Royal Engineers and his own peace of mind, as he’d been on his way to the recruiting office, he had seen floating across the road above him an aged Farman that had, he recalled, so much white linen fabric about it, it had looked like a Monday morning wash on a line, and, his eyes on the sky, he had driven full tilt into a herd of cows changing fields and had landed in hospital with concussion and a new conviction that the only way to go war was in an aeroplane.

As the Lancia slid to a stop alongside him with locked wheels, a drifting cloud of dust obscuring it for a moment, the driver leaned out, a brown envelope in his hand, wiry and squirrel-quick in his movements.

‘What’s wrong, boss?’ he asked.

‘Engine, Sammy.’ Ira jerked his head towards the RE8 now turning into wind. ‘Can’t you hear? He got back from Moshi just after I landed.’

He indicated the old Avro 504 near the huts which, with the RE8, represented the whole flying fleet of his uncertain little airline.

The driver of the car had cocked his head and was listening to the unsteady throb of the RE8’s engine.

‘Sounds rough,’ he said.

Ira nodded. ‘Like a sack of old iron.’

The driver of the car grimaced. Small, slight and black-eyed, Sammy Shapiro was the descendant of a long line of Jewish shopkeepers who had fled the previous century from European pogroms to Whitechapel and from there to Africa at the time of the Kimberley diamond rush. One thin artist’s hand gripped the door of the Lancia as he stepped out of the car, his head up, his eyes all the time on the slow-moving aeroplane moving along the fringe of the field. ’I got the letter here,’ he said over his shoulder, gesturing with the brown envelope.

Ira wasn’t listening. ‘Which letter?’ he asked.

‘The one from the Johannesburg Finance Company.’

His face lifted to the sky, his eyes never leaving the old aeroplane trying to manoeuvre into a correct position for an approach and landing, Ira grinned.

‘Our help in ages past,’ he said. ‘Our hope for years to come. What’s it say? Have they granted the loan?’

Before Sammy could answer, the engine of the RE8 coughed harshly--twice--almost like cannon-shots across the still air--then it died abruptly. Immediately the grin died on Ira’s face and he began to walk forward.

‘Get the car, Sammy,’ he said shortly.

As Sammy turned abruptly, moving quickly and surely, the nose of the aeroplane dipped and the port wing dropped, and almost before they had realised what had happened it had disappeared behind the trees just beyond the field. They saw a blade of the propeller fly, whirring, through the air, and fragments of wood and fabric spinning away, almost as though in slow motion, and small trees and shrubs shaking as they were smashed down as though by a scythe. Then the noise of the crash came to them as the big machine ploughed across the dusty surface of the earth, throwing up a vast yellow cloud like a great bird taking a dust bath. The wide white wings flailed the air madly for a second or two, then they disappeared and the tail came up, the rudder hanging loose, and as it slewed round, the Harry Tate came to a stop, crumpled and twisted and catching the sunlight like the faceted face of a diamond where the torn fabric was stretched out of shape across the shattered spars.

As the dust began to drift away, Ira began to run, then Sammy, diving for the Lancia, started the engine and swung it round, its engine screaming, in a tight circle that almost flung it on its side. As it caught him up and came alongside him, Ira, still running, flung open the door and fell inside, and the car, almost as old as the crashed aeroplane, began to rattle at full speed across the field, bouncing and swaying over the uneven surface. Behind it, from among the huts where they had been watching, came two or three African labourers in torn shirts and trousers, their wide flat feet slapping the dust in the wake of the car.

The dust had settled by the time they reached the far side of the field and they could see the words on the fuselage of the crashed machine, MOSHI AIR CARRIERS, LTD.

‘Thank God it didn’t burn,’ Ira said over the roaring of the Lancia’s engine and the rattling of the doors and the clattering and clinking of the tools that filled the space where the rear seat should have been.

Then, staggering from the bush, upright and apparently whole, they saw the pilot approaching them, stumbling among the trees with a hand to a bloody nose and a torn trouser leg flapping round his ankle.

The car slid to a stop, the dust drifting past it as it rocked on its springs, and the two of them fell out of it and started running.

‘Cluffy! You all right?’

The pilot came to a stop, tall, far too handsome in a fair Saxon way that was strangely colourless against Ira’s darker sturdier figure, and gave them a shaky smile.

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘No damage. I’m fine.’

He turned, rubbing the knee which showed through the rent in his khaki trousers and stared back at the crashed machine. It lay on its side, with one wing a crumpled mass of wood and linen, the other canted at an angle of forty-five degrees to the sky, its spars ruined, its fabric torn and gashed by the thorn trees.

‘Those bloody Royal Aircraft Factory engines,’ he burst out in an explosion of rage. They’re the most misbegotten bloody sewing machines ever designed.’ He swung round to Ira. ‘It cut,’ he said furiously. ‘Just like that. Cut on me. It started knocking over Mbuti and it grew louder and louder until it sounded as if someone was using a sledge on it. Then I got a puff of smoke and switched off and when I started her again I thought she was going to shake herself loose.’

He turned again and began to approach the aeroplane which lay among the white thorn trees like a broken butterfly among a litter of small bleached bones, moving cautiously as though he thought it might leap up at him and seize him by the throat. Ira followed him, his eyes on the man, not the machine.

The engine had wrenched itself free from the housing, sheering the bolts, and had flopped forward with twisted scoop and bent exhausts, still smoking and covered with oil, earth and fragments of tree and foliage, over the broken propeller hub. Cluff kicked at the layer of red dust that covered the wreckage and turned to look at Ira.

‘It’s a bloody mess,’ he observed.

‘I don’t suppose it’s worth salvaging,’ Ira said. ‘Who’d want to buy a machine that nobody ever liked anyway--and an engine nobody ever trusted?’

Assisted by the African labourers who had now arrived and were talking quietly in their deep resonant voices, Sammy was poking more closely among the splintered spars and torn fabric. ‘I’ll have the instruments off it, anyway,’ he said. ‘Might come in.’ He grimaced. ‘Not much else,’ he said. ‘What good’s the engine without the machine to put it in?’

Cluff began to grin. ‘And who in God’s name’s got another Harry Tate to sell?‘ he asked.

He was still staring at the wreck when he went pale and began to shake as reaction and shock caught up with him. Ira led him away and, giving him a cigarette, lit it quickly for him. As he drew deep puffs at it, the shaking stopped.

‘Hell, Ira,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. She was insured, wasn’t she?’ Ira nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said shortly. ‘She’s insured. But not for much. Never mind her, though. Let’s get you to hospital. You look as though you need a doctor to give you a onceover.’

 

They pushed Cluff into the car and ran him into the town and Ira helped him, stumbling a little now from the stiffening knee, into the hospital. Sammy was waiting outside in the car when he reappeared.

‘You’d better get back to the field, Sammy,’ he said. There’s the trip to Kalarera to do with those engine parts. It’s the last chance you’ll get, because there aren’t any more booked. I’ll look after the Harry Tate.’

‘There’s nothing to look after,’ Sammy pointed out. ‘Cluffy made no mistake about it.’

‘Fine, then. It’ll be a nice cushy job.’

Sammy glanced quickly at Ira, guessing he was forcing himself to be brisk and cheerful to hide the feeling of sick misery and disappointment that was filling his breast.

‘Shove off,’ Ira urged. ‘I’ll get a lift back from someone as soon as I hear what they’ve got to say about Cluffy. So long as he’s all right, there’s nothing to worry about.’

Something in Sammy’s face as he stood by the car took the smile off his lips. He was pushing with his hand at the dust on the studded bonnet, studiously casual. Ira’s eyes narrowed.

‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’m old enough to take it. What’s up? I know something is.’

Sammy fished in his pocket and produced the brown envelope he had been about to hand over when the RE8 had crashed.

‘The letter,’ he said. ‘The one I told you about. From Jo’burg. From the finance company. They’ve turned you down, Ira.’

Ira lit a cigarette with slow precise movements. ‘Have they?’ he said with a bright and totally unexpected smile. ‘Marvellous! Bloody marvellous! Particularly when it’s become a cabalistic fantasy among those in the know that you have to have money to carry on eating, sleeping and living--let alone flying aeroplanes.’

Sammy stared at him, disconcerted by his attitude. ‘Lor’, boss,’ he said indignantly. ‘It’s not funny.’

Ira’s heavy brows came down abruptly and the look in his eyes made Sammy back away. ‘I know it’s not funny, you bloody idiot,’ he snorted. ‘They were our last chance. There’s nobody else. Go on. Shove off before I burst into tears.’ Sammy and the car had gone when Cluff appeared soon afterwards, limping heavily and with a strip of sticking plaster across his nose. Ira got to his feet from the stone steps where he had been smoking, brows down and deep in thought. In spite of Sammy’s news, he forced himself to smile.

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