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Authors: Dale Brown

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BOOK: Whiplash
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Being with Colonel Freah—several times he’d come close to calling him captain, as he’d been in the old days—made him a snake eater again. Just being called Boston felt good.

Not that Danny hadn’t changed. There was a hint of gray in the hair that curled at his temples. He’d also mellowed, slightly at least, over the years. Danny had always run him particularly hard, trying to prove that just because they were both black, he wasn’t cutting him any slack. Now they were more like old friends.

The bus’s headlamps caught a black shadow in the road as they came out of a sharp curve. There was a truck in the road.

“Shit,” muttered Boston.

Danny, who’d been dozing, jerked awake.

“Can you get around it?” Boston asked the driver.

“I don’t know,” said Abul, downshifting. He left his right foot hovering over the gas and used his left foot to slow and work the clutch.

“Somebody behind us, too,” said Boston. “This ain’t no coincidence.”

The truck’s lights came on ahead of them. It was a military vehicle. Two men with berets stepped in front of the lights, arms raised to stop them. They had M-16 rifles.

“This is the army?” said Danny.

Abul shrugged. It was impossible to know who was stopping them. The reason, though, was easy to predict—they wanted money.

“I see six,” said Boston, who was looking behind them. “I think we can make it past them.”

Danny leaned forward, trying to see beyond the truck in the road. It was blocking most but not all of the highway. There was a deep ditch to the left. They might make it past, he thought, but they might also fall into the ditch and tumble over. The road curved to the right a short distance beyond the army truck, and there was no way to see what might be there.

“What are these guys going to ask for?” Danny asked Abul.

“Money.”

“What if we shoot them?” said Boston.

“Bad, bad. They have many guns. Plus, the army will not be happy.”

“Stop the bus,” said Danny.

The driver hit the brake.

“Keep the engine running. Be ready to leave. You think you can get around the truck?”

Abul looked at the space. It might be possible, but it would be very tight. “A chance,” he said.

“If I say go, you go,” said Danny. “No argument.”

“What are we doin’, Cap?” asked Boston.

“Playing it by ear,” said Danny.

Outside, the soldiers surrounded the bus. The two men who’d held up their hands pounded on the door, yelling.

“He wants us to come out,” said Abul.

“That, we’re not doing.”

Danny slipped across the aisle and sat in the first row. Removing his pistol from his belt, he flicked off the safety and held it behind his back.

“Open the door and tell him we’re scientists,” he told Abul. “Poor scientists. We don’t have any money.”

Abul glanced at his passenger nervously. “They will just take some money and leave,” he said.

“If we let them do that, they’ll see us as easy marks,” said Danny. “They’ll hit us again and again.”

Abul disagreed. But rather than telling Danny that directly, he told him he didn’t understand what he said. “My English not good.”

“They’ll rob us again and again,” said Boston. “And then probably kill us.”

“You can’t get away from them,” said Abul. “If tonight you escape, tomorrow they will come.”

“Tomorrow will take care of itself,” said Danny.

The soldiers pounded on the door again.

“Go ahead and open it,” said Danny.

Abul put his hand on the handle and pulled it toward him. Robbery was a simple cost of business here; resisting was foolish.

“Out!” shouted the leader of the small band of soldiers. He’d been in the Sudanese army for five years. He was nineteen.

“Tell him,” said Danny.

“My passengers are scientists,” said Abul in Arabic. “Poor men.”

“We will see their papers!” yelled the leader. He pointed his M-16 at the driver. “And they will pay for our troubles.”

“They only want to see your papers,” Abul told Danny. “And a small bribe will make things right.”

“How small?” asked Danny.

Abul asked the gunman how much the inspection might cost. The soldier replied that it was impossible to say beforehand.

“There are only two men, and they are very poor,” said Abul.

The number displeased the soldier. Ordinarily a bus like this would carry at least a dozen foreigners and yield a good amount of loot. Ten U.S. dollars would feed his men for a month; a hundred would give them a new store of ammunition, which was starting to run low.

“Tell them to come out,” he told the driver.

“He wants you to come out,” Abul told Danny.

“We’re not coming out. If he wants his money, he’s coming in,” said Danny.

Abul turned back toward the door, not sure what to tell the soldier. But the man saved him the trouble, bounding up the steps angrily. In the Sudan, the gun was law, and best obeyed quickly.

Danny coiled his body as the bus rocked.

“First one is mine,” he muttered to Boston as the Sudanese leader came onto the bus.

The soldier raised his rifle and shouted angrily. Then he fired a three-shot burst through the roof of the vehicle to show he meant business.

As he started to lower the rifle, something hit him in the side of the head, sharp and hard—Danny’s fist.

Danny pounded the soldier’s temple so hard that he cracked the skull. With his left hand he grabbed the soldier by the scruff of the neck and threw him face first to the floor, scrambling on top of him as his rifle flew down.

“Go! Go! Go!” yelled Boston. “Past the truck! Past the truck!”

Abul needed no urging. He stomped on the gas as the soldier’s companion raised his gun. The bus leapt forward. The right fender scraped against the side of the troop truck as Abul fought to keep it on the road.

One of the soldiers leapt onto the back of the bus. Boston turned and fired, pumping three bullets into the door. The man fell off, dead.

Abul jerked the bus onto the road behind the truck, barely keeping it upright as the shoulder gave way on the left. He let off the gas and cranked the wheel desperately, staying with the curve. A man ran at the bus from the side, and Abul lowered his head, hunching over the wheel and praying to Allah to deliver them.

Behind him, Danny quickly frisked the soldier, tossing away a pistol and a grenade, along with two magazines for the M-16. Now that he was on the floor, the man looked small and almost frail. His rib bones poked through his uniform shirt.

“Up,” Danny ordered.

The soldier didn’t understand. Danny grabbed his shirt and threw him into a seat. Fear gave way to resignation on his face. The man prepared himself to die.

“You’re a lieutenant?” said Danny incredulously, noticing the metal pins on the man’s brown fatigue collar.

The soldier didn’t understand.

“Ask him his name,” Danny told the bus driver.

Abul was too busy driving to translate.

“Hey, Abul, who is this guy?” Danny said.

The soldier turned and spat blood to the floor. He worked his tongue around his teeth, trying to see if any had been broken. He’d been shot once when he was seventeen; the punch in the face felt worse.

“Stop the bus,” said Danny after they’d gone almost a mile from the other soldiers.

Abul did so, his foot heavy on the brake. His hands were shaking.

“Ask him his name and his unit,” Danny told the driver.

“What is your name?” said Abul from his seat.

The soldier didn’t answer the question, merely staring at Danny. Never in his life would he have expected a robbery victim to act this way, especially a westerner. It was impossible; the man, he decided, must be a devil.

“Open the back door, Boston,” said Danny.

“What are you going to do, Colonel?”

“Get rid of him. He’s of no use to us.”

“You must kill him,” said Abul. He jumped up from his seat. “Shoot him. Shoot him.”

“I don’t think so,” said Danny.

“You will kill him or he will kill you. He will kill me,” said Abul.

“You come this way a lot?” said Danny.

Abul had already resolved that he would never drive this way again, but that was irrelevant. The soldiers were fierce and predatory; they would certainly want revenge for this sort of embarrassment.

“Kill him,”
said Abul.

“I don’t know, Colonel,” said Boston. “Abul may be right. They aren’t going to interpret mercy as a good thing here.”

Danny looked into the soldier’s face. He fully expected to die.

“How old are you?” he asked.

The soldier had no idea what he was saying.

“Abul?”

Abul translated. The man simply shrugged. He wasn’t able to answer the question accurately, and would not talk to a devil for anything. It was one thing to lose his life—everyone did, some more quickly than others—and a much different thing to lose his soul, which he knew would last forever.

“Get the door, Boston,” said Danny.

“Mr. Rock,” said Abul, appealing to Boston. “To let him go now—foolish.”

“So was not paying him,” said Danny. He hauled the kid to his feet and pointed the gun toward his groin.

“You remember me. My name is Kirk,” he told him, using one of his aliases. “Kirk. You screw with me, next time I blow these off.”

He jammed the gun hard enough to make the kid suck wind.

Boston opened the door at the back. Danny pushed him out.

“Go,” Danny told the driver. “Get us the hell out of here.”

Eddd, Sudan

W
HILE
D
ANNY
F
REAH WAS DECIDING HOW TO BEST IMPRESS
the Sudanese army that he was not a man to be messed with, Nuri Abaajmed Lupo was another two hundred and some miles to the south, doing his best not to be noticed by one of the army’s most ferocious opponents, a rebel by the name of General Mohamed Henri Wani—Red Henri, in the local slang, because of his red hair and his unusual French given name.

Nuri had traveled to a village some fifty miles west of the base camp, intending to be back before Danny and Boston arrived. But talk in town that Red Henri was coming had enticed him to bug the small bar-restaurant-inn that served as the village’s main hangout. He’d no sooner gotten the bugs placed when two of Red Henri’s bodyguards showed up at the door, effectively sealing everyone inside for the duration of their leader’s visit.

As an outsider, Nuri was immediately suspect. He was dressed in the loose white garb worn by nearly everyone else in the village. His stubble beard and swarthy skin made him look Arab, like about thirty percent of the population. But the population was so sparse that locals knew instantly who fit and who didn’t, and their glances toward Nuri gave him away to the two bodyguards.

Nuri told them enthusiastically that he had been hired to
help a scientific team looking for dinosaurs in the foothills nearby. It was the same story he’d told the café owner and everyone he’d met. The bodyguards—two boys barely fourteen—weren’t very impressed.

“Sit there,” said the taller one, pointing to a small wooden chair near the side of the room. “Hand over your gun.”

Nuri handed over his AK-47. Few men traveled without weapons here, and the rifle raised no extra suspicions from the bodyguards.

The question for Nuri was whether to hand over either of his pistols. He finally decided that he would give up his Glock, and lifted his long shirt to reveal its holster.

“Why do you have a pistol?” asked the tall bodyguard. “These monsters you dig up—they are dangerous?”

Anywhere else in the world, the comment would have been meant as a joke. But the rebels were uneducated and largely naive about anything beyond their limited experience. They also tended not to joke with strangers.

“Yes,” said Nuri, his voice grave. “Some men have been killed by them. The medicine is very strong.”

“You should have the general protect you,” said the bodyguard, meaning Red Henri.

“It would be a great honor.” Nuri bowed his head. All he could do was hope that the young man would forget the suggestion.

Red Henri had gotten his nickname as a young man, when his hair was red. It had since thinned and turned gray, but for many of his victims the adjective remained an appropriate reference to the blood on his hands. Like many of the rebel leaders, he called himself a general, but the highest rank he had held in the Sudanese army was corporal.

After the sun set, Nuri thought the visit would be canceled and they would be let free. But darkness had no effect on Red Henri’s itinerary. They all continued to wait, bored and barely awake.

Finally, about twenty minutes after midnight, an ambulance siren sounded in the distance. The guards immediately
snapped to attention, prompting everyone in the place to rise and stand. The proprietor, a short man with caved-in cheeks and a right ear that looked as if it had been bitten off, rubbed his hands nervously by the door.

The siren grew louder. A blue flashing light stroked the darkness outside. The guttural roar of mufflerless trucks and a heavy bass beat vibrated the walls and floor of the house. Nuri couldn’t place the beat until the motorcade pulled up in front. It was the bass line of an American rap song, an obscure Beastie Boys tune more than two decades old.

Red Henri traveled with the core of his army, about two hundred strong, most of them packed into the backs of old pickup trucks. They spread out around the town, posting themselves as lookouts and rousting any of the residents who had fallen asleep after the arrival of the advance party.

All twenty-three of his personal bodyguards—he considered the number, which could only divided by itself and one, a strong omen of success—jumped from the troop truck that rode in front of his Chinese-made Hummer knockoff. They formed a phalanx around their general, who waited for his aides riding in the ambulance at the head of the convoy. As his communication czar approached—that was the man’s title—Red Henri pointed at him. The communications czar shook his head and held up his BlackBerry. Red Henri frowned; he liked getting messages on the device, though he never answered them.

Entourage assembled, the rebel leader swept toward the house. The men inside, who’d been standing at attention the entire time, strained to stand even straighter as his first soldiers came in.

The rebel army’s dress was a collection of different castoffs. Some wore uniforms purchased from Kenya, a sometime ally. Others wore civilian clothes donated by charity groups in Europe and the U.S. who thought they were helping the needy. The handful of former Sudanese soldiers wore the uniforms they had deserted in.

All of Red Henri’s bodyguards dressed in baggy khaki pants and white T-shirts, with red scarves tied around their
closely shaven skulls. To a Western eye—an American one especially—they looked more like television or movie “gangstas” or wannabe gang members from a decade before. This was not a coincidence. Red Henri had been inspired by music videos when he established the uniform; he loved American rap, gangsta and otherwise.

At six-ten, Red Henri dominated a room, even a crowded one like the one Nuri was trapped in. The rebel extended his arms as he swept in, greeting everyone as if he was joining a party in progress. The owner of the house cowered at the side, then tried to kiss his hand as he came near. Amused, Red Henri waved him off, asking for something to drink.

Nuri had never seen Red Henri this close before, and while he wanted to stay as inconspicuous as possible, he couldn’t stop himself from staring as he made mental notes. Red Henri’s face was baby smooth, unmarked by either care or disease. He’d been shot many times over the decade that he had fought, but none of those wounds were visible beneath the white track suit he wore. He had the air of a politician, and the self-assurance a phalanx of bodyguards brings.

The rebel man who had spoken to Nuri earlier about dinosaurs walked over to one of Red Henri’s aides. Within moments Red Henri had heard the story and came over to greet him personally.

“You are a scientist!” he said with enthusiasm. He spoke first his tribal tongue, then switched to English.

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“You can help me.”

“I’m just a poor man—”

“You will still help us!” Red Henri slapped him on the shoulder happily. “I am glad you are with us.”

“I will do what I can, Your Excellency.”

“These spirits you are digging up. They are not angry at being disturbed?”

“They have to be handled very delicately,” said Nuri. “It is not easy—it can be very dangerous.”

“Then you are a brave man.”

Red Henri slapped him on the shoulder one more time and walked away. Relieved, Nuri began thinking of what he would eat when got back to camp.

He had settled on salted goat kabobs when the ambulance siren sounded outside, calling the general’s entourage back to order. The two members of the advance team nodded at the owner, who fell into a chair from relief as they left. The trucks rumbled to life and the hard beat of rap once more began pounding the ground.

“I wonder if I could have some tea before leaving,” Nuri asked the host. “I have a long drive.”

The man pointed to a warm kettle on the nearby counter. Nuri went to help himself when one of the rebels came back inside.

“You, there, come,” he said in Arabic, pointing at Nuri.

“What?”

“The general wants to see your bones. Come. You’ll show us your camp.”

“I don’t think—”

The aide grabbed hold of Nuri’s arm and pushed him toward the door.

“That was not a request. You ride with the general and do as he says.”

“I have a motorcycle,” said Nuri. “I’ll follow.”

“The motorcycle in front?” The man smiled. “It will make a fine addition to the cause. It was very generous of you to donate it.”

BOOK: Whiplash
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