Qurbani Sing slouched onto the camp bed with a groan. Turning his face toward his companion, he paused before sighing. “How in the hell did I end up here, friend?” he asked.
The friend was Hakim Echebbi, a thirty-something Algerian man who looked like he could more than handle himself in a scrap – just so long as he doesn’t have to do too much running. A stint in the Navy as a naval counter-terrorist expert gave Echebbi a hardness of spirit that it seemed his body was fighting not to betray, the first signs being a slight paunchiness around the middle.
“I have no idea how you came to this place, Sikh,” he says drily, before continuing in a more light-hearted tone, “But here I am minding my own business – running a nice little operation in fact – when all of a sudden I hear everything has blow up in the north.” He turns to face Sigh and says with a wry smile. “And now it’s all ballsed up. I guess I really do have nothing better to do than save your sorry behind.” Standing up and crossing the room he leans on a weapons crate. “So why don’t you tell me how you got from… wherever you were before here, I suppose.”
Sing sat up in the canvas stretcher bed and tried to recall how he came to be in this house, on the side of a cliff in the middle of a jungle.
“It was sunny and hot when I left Sefapane – Greaves paid me to go meet some guy and help him get a boat-load of the Jackal’s guns into town. The idea was that we didn’t wan the APR and UFLL boys to stop killing each other long enough to turn on the rest of us.”
“Smart plan,” Hakim added.
“I know, right? What kind of stupid idea is that?” He laughed. “Anyway, I got to the boat and you’ll never guess who the captain is – Andre Hipolite!”
“No fuckin’ way!” Hakim interjects, astonished, “I thought that guy was dead!”
“Me too”, Qurbani replies before continuing. “So there we are, just the two of us and enough guns for, well, more than enough to ensure this war keeps on for years. And we’ve barely gone 100 metres when soldiers appear from out of nowhere – I didn’t even figure out whose side they were on. Then all of a sudden I’m seeing mortar smoke on the roof of the barge and all around there this whistling, rushing noise.
“I look up and I’m staring at a rocket heading right for me –so I’m pretty certain I’m dead, right? I mean, there’s no way the barge can survive more than a couple of rounds from a mortar and this rocket. But it does, yet each time we're hit the engine blows and I’ve got to stop shooting at these bastards swarming around us in attack boats to grab a wrench and some tape and patch the bloody thing up.
“I’ve eaten enough lead to make a paperweight by now, but at least the engine’s running so I try and get to the front of the ship to see if I can’t take out the rocketeer. I didn’t see the incoming rocket until the last second so I barely had time to duck out of the way, but in the process I hurt myself pretty bad.
“I scrambled up to the top of the deck and crouched around behind the bridge – I was barely hanging on by a thread. I think something must have landed on my hand in the explosion because the little finger on my left hand was at this weird angle and I had to snap it back into place.
“I managed to pop a syrette with my good hand and that made me feel a little better. Somehow we managed to fight the rest off and got the barge into the port. My left hand is never going to be the same again. In town I talked to Doctor Obua – you were there, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember, but what’d he tell you? I was too busy watching the street – you should have seen the soldiers move when they heard they were all getting new AK’s and PKM’s! It was like those civilians when the aid workers were handing out travel passes.” Hakim chuckled to himself at the irony of the reversal.
Singh continued. “Ostensibly I was there to warn him about the weapons, but when he sees that I’ve got malaria the Doctor says to me, in his thick accent, ‘You must know that medicine is in short supply, but there are other altruists like yourself. If you return here when it is calm I would be happy to introduce you.’ I nearly laughed – me, an altruist?!”
“Hahaha, that’s pretty crazy,” Hakim adds, “was he serious, do you think? Didn’t he hear about what you did to that priest up north, bailing on him like that?”
“I don’t know – shit all news came out of the north after all.” Qurbani shrugged. “Anyway, I didn’t have time to ask because that was just as the fight was breaking out and you were pushing me out the back door.”
“Yeah, again, sorry about that mate. Couldn’t be helped – if they found you in there with us we were all dead.”
For a moment no one spoke and the silence stretched awkwardly.
“It’s okay.” Qurbani offered. “I would have done the same. Good thing I heard about that shortcut over the north wall though – if I had to run through the middle of town I don’t think I would have made it.”
“Yeah I stacked those crates up against that low roof just for this kind of situation. Glad you made use of them.” Hakim relaxed.
“Me too. I made it out to the river just north of Soleo, so who do you think just then decides to ring me up and tell me he's in trouble?”
“I think I can guess.” Hakim suggests.
Qurbani nods and continues, “So Andre says he’s now being chased in the barge. The idiot probably planned to keep it and re-sell it rather than scuttle it in the lake like he damn well should have. So now he’s being chased all the way down to the Marina and he decides that I’m the person to go to for help. Well, I figured I might as well try despite the fact that he might be dead by the time I get there.
“But when I did, the tough guy was still alive and putting up a bit of a fight. There were about 15 guys trying to get onto that bridge, but Andre kept firing out through the front window. He couldn’t have had many rounds left though – he was chewing through them like candy.
“So I took some of them out from afar and cleaned up his mess. He was grateful and told me he was just going to scuttle the barge after all so it was all a bit of a waste, in the end. Still, the man was grateful and he owes me now.”
“That could be useful – supposedly he’s got a lot of contacts, Andre.” Hakim suggested. “Maybe he’ll be able to give you a lead on the Jackal?”
“Maybe. I left the Marina pretty much straight away after that and headed up here. I needed somewhere safe to rest and recover. Which reminds me – how did you even find me out here?” Qurbani asked, intrigued.
“It was pretty easy, man – I went to Mike’s at the Marina and they said you’d just left. From there, I followed the sounds of gunfire and the trail of bodies. Hell - you’re not that hard to find y’know.”
Qurbani laughed. “Right you are, friend. I should be more careful in future.”
“Don’t worry about it. I got your back for now – you rest up.” Hakim paced over to the door. “I’ll be around if you get into any trouble, ok?”
“Thanks, Echebbi. Here’s to never having to see each other - ever again.” Qurbani took a swig from a nearby water bottle as Hakim departed the safe house, whistling as he went.