Novel Serialisation – The Killing of Alex Millar – Ep 10

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THE KILLING

 OF 

ALEX MILLAR

© BM 2008

***

CHAPTER Eight

Chapter Eight – Episode 10

“Alex, wake up!  Alex!”  Francesca was shaking him by the shoulder.

“What, what?”

“The phone.  You had better answer it.  You do not know who it might be, and I do not think I want everyone to know I am sleeping with you.”

“OK, OK.  I thought it was a bloody fire engine.  I thought the place was on fire.”  He saw that Francesca was on his right, and the phone was on her right.  He got out of bed and padded, naked, around to the other side.  Self consciously, he pulled in his stomach a little.

“We need to change sides, young lady.  You are coming between me and my telephone.”

She made a face at him, stuck out her tongue and lay back in bed, pulling the duvet up to her neck.

“Good morning.  Alex Millar” He listened for perhaps twenty seconds to the person on the other end.

“Harry, for Christ’s sake, do you know the time?  And do you know that it is bloody Saturday, and I have a day off?”  He leaned across to Francesca, and mouthed, behind his hand,  “Harry Sawyer.”

She mouthed back “It’s Sunday, not Saturday.”

“What’s that, Harry?  It’s Sunday?  OK, it’s bloody Sunday, it’s still my day off.”

“Yes, Harry, I do like to eat.  Yes, Harry, I know who pays me to do that.  OK, OK, I will be sensible, talk to me.”

The rest of his conversation consisted of grunts, and many “Yes, Harry’s”.  He scribbled some notes on a bedside pad, and while still listening to Harry, increasingly turned to watching Francesca, who was slowly pulling down the duvet to reveal her breasts, and then to expose her naked body completely.  He reached out and gently touched her right nipple, and then the left, and they exchanged glances.

“All right, Harry, I have all that.  Kinshasa, tonight, Air France.  OK, I’ll get on to it.  Harry, please excuse me.  I’ll ring you back, there is something I must do.”  

As it eventuated, it was not possible to arrange flights for the same day, and he was forced to book an Air France flight to Brazzaville for the Monday night.  Kinshasa Airport was closed, a not unusual occurrence  “It’s easier to say when Kinshasa Airport is open, rather than when it is closed,” he grumbled.

She drove him in the BMW to Heathrow, and insisted on putting the car in the short-term car park, and walking with him to Departures.

“You don’t need to do this, Daina.  I’m a big boy, and can find Departures OK.”

She kissed him.  “Stop it.  I know that I do not have to see you off.  I want to.  OK?”

He checked in, and there were no queries about his lack of visas for his African destinations, as his ticket only showed Paris.  He had taken the precaution of having a separate ticket for Brazzaville, as experience had told him that the French were less fussy about things like visas, than their British counterparts.

“I’d better go.  I love you.”  He kissed her, and noticed tears in her eyes.  “Hey, what’s this?”

She held him tightly.  “I love you, too, and I will miss you.  Come home safe.”

“I will.  I have someone to come home to, now.”  He hugged her fiercely, and went through into Departures and the Fast Track lane.

The flight to CDG at Roissy was short and uneventful, as most flights to Paris were.  There was then a gritty wait at Roissy of about two hours, which was prefaced by a change of terminals, the penalty which the French imposed on those who did not use Air France to fly into their capital city.  Finally, around midnight, he boarded the Air France flight for the six and a half-hour flight to Brazzaville.  The slim dark stewardess reminded him of Francesca.  She offered him Champagne, which he declined.  He hated the bloody stuff.  She said something in French which he failed to understand, although had she spoken more slowly, he might have done.

Pardon, mais mon Francais n’est pas trop bon.  Pouvez vous parler en Anglais?”

“Yes, sir.  I said is there anything else I can get you?

Merci.  Some dry white wine, s’il vous plait.”

Several glasses, and two temazapan tablets later, he fell asleep, and did not wake up again until the Airbus was well into its descent towards Brazzaville.  Hastily, he scribbled his details onto the landing card, and tucked it into his passport with his yellow World Health Organisation book, containing his inoculations record.  He hoped fervently that the system was working, and that there would be someone waiting to meet him.

Brazzaville was all that he remembered, dirty, smelly, confused and corrupt.  Alex had a simple rule at African airports, and one that he applied rigorously at airports in West and Central Africa, in particular.  It was always to be met at the airport by a local agent, who knew the ropes, and could extract him from the swirling dangerous mass of people that was Arrivals at African airports.  If there was no one there to ‘meet and greet’ you, you did not leave the airport, but simply waited for the next flight back to Europe.  He quickly encountered the Agent, who indicated he was expecting Alex Millar, by holding up a sign saying “Alex Millar.” Alex went up and shook hands.  This time, at least, the system was working.

Bon jour.  Je m’appelle Alex Millar.  Vous parlez Anglais?”

“Certainly, sir.”

OK.  Je pense c’est plus facile de parler Anglais.”

Oui, d’accord.  Do you have your documents?”

Millar handed them over.  “You know that I do not have a visa either for the Republic of Congo, or Zaire?”

“It is not a problem.  I can arrange.  Please wait for your case to come through, and I will get the transit visa for here.”

“I don’t have a case, all I will need is in here in this.”  He patted the large bag he carried on his shoulder.  Again, bitter experience had taught him that a carry on bag was the preferred option in flying to Africa, if you could possibly get away with it.

“All right, please take a seat.  I will be as quick as I can.”

Millar sat down on a broken plastic chair which bit into his buttocks.  He did not feel well.  He never did, arriving at strange airports in the early hours of the morning.  He felt gritty, dirty, smelling of stale sweat, unshaven and his shirt and trousers were crumpled and uncomfortable.  His socks felt like he had half a beach in them.  In other words, he felt like someone who had just slept on an aircraft in his clothes.  In addition, his head was thick and he felt as if he had been drugged.  It was an inevitable aftermath to taking the sleeping tablets, but he knew, from experience, he could not sleep without them.  The feeling would go, and it was the lesser of two evils.  He wanted to get out of this dammed airport and get on his way to Kinsahsa, and then to take off all this uncomfortable clothing, shower, and find a beer and some food.   He reflected, as he did almost every time he came to Africa, that this was not a proper way for a grown up man to earn a living.  He knew that these depressing thoughts were more to do with the early hour and the temazapan than with true dissatisfaction with the job.

The Agent returned.  “OK, Mr Millar, all fixed, let’s go.”

“Good”, said Alex.  “ By the way, what is your name?”

“It’s Charles.”  He pronounced the name in the English, and not the French way.

“Bugger me,” thought Alex, “ that is pretty special for round here.”  Instead he said, “OK, Charles.  You’re the boss.  Allons y.”

They didn’t get very far before they were held up at the Health counter.  A small man, wearing a coat that had once been white, and which reached almost to his ankles, was exercising his authority.

“He says your vaccinations are not in order,” explained Charles.

“That’s a lot of bollocks.”  Millar glared at the diminutive health official, who glared back.

“Nevertheless, Mr Millar, that’s what he says.”

“Can you find a few CFA for him and let us get the hell out of here?”

“I’ll see what I can arrange.”

Two or three minutes animated talking, and a friendly handshake between Charles and the official, and they were on their way.  They were met outside the terminal building by a small, raggedly dressed youth in sandals, who grinned expectantly at them.

“This is Philippe.”

“Hi, Philippe.”  Alex grasped the youth’s hand, and at the same time his bag was taken off his shoulder by Philippe, who went off at a fast trot towards the car park.

“Keen lad, your Philippe.”

Charles smiled politely, and Alex suspected that his knowledge of English was not as extensive as he had at first thought.

“How are we getting to Kinshasa?  Is the little plane still flying?”

“Well, sir, the plane is fine, but the authorities in Zaire have closed their airspace at present, and it cannot fly to Kinshasa Airport.”

“Why is the airspace closed?”

Charles shrugged.  “Who can say?    It’s Zaire; almost anything is possible there.  Though, many people believe that there will be trouble soon.”

“So, how do we get there?”

“We take the ferry, sir.”

“I’ve never done that before.”

“I’m sure you will find it very interesting.”

Getting a visa for Zaire took over an hour, Millar getting more and more irritated with each passing minute’s delay, but eventually, after the exchange of an undisclosed quantity of US dollars, they were at the northern bank of the River Congo, which was about two or three miles wide at the crossing point between the two cities.

“Very strange river this one, sir.”  Charles turned to Millar as they queued for ferry tickets.  “We start out on the River Congo, and finish up on the River Zaire.  It changes in the middle.”  He chuckled at his own sense of humour, and Alex smiled politely.  The Belgian Congo changed its name to Zaire, ten or eleven years after independence, and the Government changed the river’s name to the Zaire.  The former French colony on the northern bank, not understanding political correctness, stayed with the old name, both for the country, and the river.

With their tickets in hand, they shuffled down a sloping and very broken concrete ramp towards the ferry, a low, squat and very ugly vessel.  It reminded Alex of something he had seen in a film many years ago starring Peter Finch, and Angie Dickinson.  He thought that it had been called “The Sins of Rachel Cade”, and was about a missionary in the Belgian Congo during the Second World War.  Angie had played the missionary, Peter Finch the brave Belgian colonel, and Roger Moore an RAF pilot, who lived up to his first name in regard to Angie.  Alex had never been able to figure out what an RAF fighter pilot was doing in the Belgian Congo.  However, from his own viewpoint, he realised that he had probably gone to look at Angie, rather than Roger, so it didn’t much matter was the Royal Air Force was doing there.

The intending passengers stood in a great swarm at the dockside, making no attempt to board the rickety old vessel.  The river flowed past the boat, like liquid mud.  Mixed up in the river’s flow were branches of trees and great swathes of what Alex believed to be water hyacinth

“What’s the problem, Charles, are we not allowed on board yet?”

“Oh, no, sir, we can board when we wish.”

“What do they know, then, that we don’t?”

“I do not understand you, Mr Millar.”

“Why aren’t the locals going on board?”

Charles smiled.  “Oh, I am sorry, I did not understand.  They always wait until the last minute to go aboard.  It’s normal around here.”

“Why, for God’s sake?”

“They are very superstitious people, sir.  They are afraid that the boat may sink.  Therefore, they always wait. It means they spend the least possible period on the vessel.”

“Do the ferries sink very often?”

“Oh, no, only about every two years or so.”

“Well, that’s all right, then.  We’ll get on.”

Charles indicated a gangway leading below.  “Would you like to go down stairs?”

“How often did you say these things sink?”

“About every two years or so.”

“When was the last one?”

“About two years ago.”  Charles seemed to make no connections at all between his earlier statement, and his present one.

Millar removed his sunglasses and looked at Charles.  “Well, Charles, my old friend, if it is all the same to you, I will stay up here.”

They found seats at the stern, and after another ten minutes, all the passengers came on board, in an undulating black tide, and most disappeared down the hatchway.  The little vessel, whose engine had been idling quietly, suddenly burst into life, and massive clouds of oily, evil smelling, black diesel smoke enveloped most of the upper deck choking the passengers, and leaving greasy black spots on clothing and skin.

Charles smiled again, enigmatically.  “It is not very pleasant on top either.”

Alex mused disconsolately to himself “Go below and drown, stay on deck and suffocate.”

About two hundred yards out into the river the little vessel became entangled in a floating carpet of matted foliage; the ubiquitous water hyacinth in which were intertwined large branches of trees, and even one complete tree, it roots sticking above the water, like the rigging of an old time sailing ship.  The crew rushed to the starboard side of the ferry, and began pushing away the unwelcome addition to the hull with long wooden poles.  The passengers on deck got up from their seats to watch, chattering in Lingala.  Suddenly they fell silent.  Charles touched Alex’s arm, and pointed silently to something caught up in the tree roots.  It was a body of an African, but whether it had been a man or woman was no longer possible to tell.  The body was hooked into the tree and laying on its back.  The stomach was hugely bloated, and the flesh was turning grey and putrid.  As the gruesome figure slipped past them, Alex saw with a shudder, that the skin and flesh was trailing in the water, and apparently jerking.  It was alive with fish, feeding from the corpse, and the face had been reduced to white bone.

“Jesus,” breathed Alex, turning to Charles.  “Any idea what happened?”

Charles shrugged.  “Maybe a fisherman who fell overboard, but most likely someone who was murdered in Kisangani and thrown into the river.  Perhaps you should ask the President.”    He shrugged again, and added, “This is Zaire, not England.”

They struggled across the river, waddling unsteadily upstream against the flow, until they were a mile, or a mile and a half east of Kinshasa, where the skipper turned the boat’s head to the south and then headed south west at what appeared to be full throttle.

“I hope we do not miss”, thought Alex, “or we will end up four hundred miles away in Matadi or the bloody Atlantic like that poor bastard a few minutes ago.”

There was no such mishap.  The boat’s commander had clearly performed the operation once or twice before, and the little vessel bumped quite gently against the pontoon, on the southern bank of the River Congo, or River Zaire, depending on your nationality.

“Welcome to Zaire, sir, and keep a grip on your bag.”  Charles spoke urgently, and with good cause, as even before the vessel had been tied up, dozens of men were jumping aboard, and pulling at the cargo, laying exposed on the deck, and at the possessions of the eight or ten white people on board.  Alex grasped his bag firmly in front of him, and used it as a battering ram to beat his way through the crowds.  Charles was a much smaller man, and even though he too was black, like his prospective porters, he was wearing a tie, and was a target, therefore, for the crowd’s attention.  He struggled along in Alex’s wake.

They were channelled into a dilapidated tin roofed hut, which served as the Customs office, and forced to queue in stifling heat, while the black uniformed Customs officers languidly picked their way through the personal belongings of the travellers.  After twenty minutes, or so, Alex’s turn came, as the sweat rolled down his face, stinging his eyes, and making his earlier dissatisfaction with his personal bodily condition more and more acute with each passing minute.  The Customs man indicated, without speaking, for Alex to empty the bag, which he did, onto a dirty and rickety trestle table.  The man turned over the shirts, underpants and trousers infinitely slowly, and examined each item as though he had never seen such things before.  All the while, he smoked a cigarette, which hung from his lips, dribbling ash onto the clothing.  He opened the toilet bag and scrutinised the toothpaste, shaving cream, and deodorant, even squirting the Old Spice under his armpits, and laughing.  He found a small piece of paper, folded in two, and opened it.  After some seconds, he gave it to Millar.  It said, ‘I love you.  Take care.  Francesca.’

Vous cherchez quoi?”  Millar demanded angrily.   The man looked at him for several seconds, and without reply, continued his leisurely search.   Charles touched his elbow gently, and shook his head slowly.

“Let him finish, sir.”  Charles said worriedly, and then spoke rapidly in French to the Customs man.  They then shook hands, and the man put a chalk mark on Millar’s bag, and went to a large black woman standing next to him.  Millar was left to repack his bag. 

Finally they were free, and walking towards the parked cars, where the Zairian counterpart of Philippe met them, wearing the same grin, and if possible, dirtier, more ragged clothes.  After a ritual and very effusive shaking of hands, they were off, and in ten or twelve minutes they were pulling up at the Inter Continental, a hotel dear to the memory of almost anyone who had ever been in Kinshasa.  It was an oasis of peace and security in a desert of chaos.  Not only that, it really was just about the only hotel in Kinshasa.   Charles’s job was finished, and Millar was immensely glad of the little man’s help.  He gave him twenty US dollars, and the driver a few CFA, which he guessed the man could use somewhere on this side of the river, and checked in.

Alex had breakfast, went to his room, threw his clothes in a corner, had a long hot shower, and went to bed.  It was around three in the afternoon when he awoke.  He lay for a moment or two, deciding where he was, and when he remembered that he was in Kinshasa, he let out a slow groan, followed by “shit.”  He showered again, dressed slowly, and went downstairs to the bar.  He looked round and noted that even for the IC, the place was pretty full.  He saw a few journalistic types whom he knew, and with whom he exchanged nods, and then someone whom he knew very well, Willie Dickson, from Reuters, over to his right and he weaved his way over to join him.

“Hi, Willie?”

“Alex, you old bastard.  How the devil are you?  I should have expected to see you here.”

They shook hands, and Willie went on “Alex, let me introduce Marc Selosse, from AFP.”

Alex and Marc also shook hands.  “Bon jour, Marc, ca va?”

“Oui, ca va.  How are you, Alex, I read your story from Angola.  Good stuff, it was reprinted in Le Monde.”

“Was it, now?  I didn’t know that.  They certainly did not pay me.”

Marc grinned and shrugged, reminding Millar of Francesca.  “C’est la facon Francaise.”

“Hey you bastards, speak English, or I’ll think you are hatching something.”  Willie Dickson protested.

“OK, OK.”  Alex waved at a waiter on the other side of the room, and the man nodded.  “Another beer, gentlemen?”

When the drinks arrived, Alex made a writing motion with his hand, but Dickson said “You can’t sign for anything, Alex, they must have a cash flow problem.  Are you all right for money?”

“Yes, I have a lot of dollars, but I believe I may have some of the local stuff, which our agent gave me this morning.”  He opened a grubby brown envelope which was stuffed with dirty torn notes.  He glanced at the bill which the waiter had put on the table.  “Good God, forty eight million zaire.”  He counted out the notes, of which there were only notes of the value of one million zaire, and as a generous gesture put two additional notes on the pile.  “I have never given away two million of anything before.”

“How much were the beers?” enquired Dickson.

“Forty eight million, worth about tuppence happeny, I suppose.”

“A bit more, I think,” said Dickson, “There are six million zaire to the dollar at the moment, so you just paid about eight bucks.”

They drank.  “So, what’s happening, guys?”  Alex addressed his question to the other two.

Dickson looked at the Frenchman, who replied.  “Well, as usual in Africa, it is very difficult to say.  Something is going on, there is a lot of tension in the air, and the general feeling among the ex pats is that there will be some kind of explosion, sooner rather later.”

“Will it be directed against Mobutu?”

Selosse shrugged again, and again Millar was reminded of Francesca.  “That is not very likely, perhaps not even possible.  The Presidential Guards, the DSP, are all chosen from his own tribal group, many from his own village.  They are very loyal to the President, and are hated by the rest of the Army, for many reasons, but especially because they get paid every month, and the rest of the army has not been paid for five months.”

Dickson added “And the rest of the population hasn’t been paid for nine months.”

Selosse continued.  “Alex, you saw with the beers how worthless the Zaire is.  At independence you could get a dollar US for two zaire.  Now the rate is six million, and falling, and no one anywhere in the world wants the currency, not even in the rest of Africa.  The Government has no foreign exchange, and without forex you cannot import oil, or the tools they need for mining, and without the revenue from the mines, there is no revenue for the State.  No oil, no fuel, for the mines, for the logging, for home cooking, no electricity.  Nothing for the Government to steal.   There is no phone service in the country.  Everyone has one of these dammed things.”  He waved a large mobile phone in front of him.  “Without these, we are lost in this hell.”

Dickson added “The market is running out of staples, maize, rice, cooking oil.  People are getting hungry.”

“You been to the embassies yet?”  Millar put the question was to both men.

Selosse said “ I have been to the French and Belgian embassies.  They are warning ex pats to keep a low profile and stay off the streets at the moment.  They did not say so directly, but I think the French military in Gabon have been put on alert, and the Belges are doing the same.  There are still about three thousand Belgian expats here.”

Dickson nodded and contributed “Not me, Alex.  Perhaps we can go together to pay our respects to Her Britannic Majesty’s representative tomorrow, and follow it with a visit to our American cousins?”

“Sure,” said Alex.  “Also, I have a mate here, an Australian who works for an oil company.  I met him when I was with the military in Australia.  He can fill us in on how business views things.”

“OK.  Sounds good, but we will have to bring the Frenchman.”

Alex asked why, and Selosse laughed.  “Because I have the car.”

The following morning started fine and sunny with every prospect of becoming warmer still.   But, reflected Alex, almost every day was like that in Kinshasa.   After breakfast they made a number of appointments, using two way radios, as the telephone system in the hotel did not work.  In fact, the telephone system in the entire country did not work, and had not been operational for five or six years.  Business was conducted with the two-way radios in Kinshasa, and by large chunky mobile phones internationally.  They were expensive, but necessary, no, indispensable.

 Meetings were arranged for the UK and US embassies for the afternoon, and Alex agreed to have dinner with Richard Manners, his Australian colleague.  The morning was free, and Marc suggested a visit to some friends of his who operated a craft business about fifteen kilometres out of town.  The others agreed readily, as the Inter Continental had only a certain number of attractions, and these were being exhausted rapidly, as the hotel was becoming more and more crowded.    They went to the car park, where Marc approached a very old, very tired, brown Peugeot 504 wagon, and a diesel at that.

“Marc, I appreciate that you are French, but is this not carrying patriotism a little far?”

Selosse raised his eyebrows, and shrugged, again,  “What would you prefer, Alex, a four wheel drive white Range Rover with the Union Jack?  Well, so would I, without the Union Jack, but if things become unpleasant in Kinshasa, what do you think they will be looking to hijack first?  Your Range Rover, or this old lady cinq cent quatre?”

Millar raised his hands.  “OK, OK, d’accord.  You’re the boss.”

“And the driver,” added Dickson.

They departed in a cloud of blue smoke, accompanied by several bangs, and drove down into the City, towards the great square and the empty plinth which the statue of King Leopold had once occupied, and near where the US Aid offices now stood.  Kinshasa had been Leopoldville in those days.  There were many people in the streets, standing in little huddles, deep in conversation.  The passing of the old Peugeot aroused no comment.  The crafts market near to the US offices was open but almost deserted.  Small groups of soldiers were gathered at street corners, talking.   These were members of the Forces Armees Zairoises, the FAZ.    These were the badly paid, or hardly paid, undisciplined and cowardly soldiers of the regular Zairean Army. 

 They drove through the street ironically called ‘Wall Street’ by the locals.  It was here that people traded their precious dollars for valueless Zaires, a currency not worth the paper it was printed on.  This street was normally a bustling noisy jamboree.  Today it was almost empty, and they could see little trading taking place.

 Almost all the service stations they passed were devoid of customers, although it was mid morning, and normally very busy before the heat of the day made life even more unpleasant.

“Do you notice anything?”  The Frenchman spoke gently.

“Streets are quiet,” said Dickson, looking around.

“More than that?”

“No” said Dickson and Millar in unison.

“There are no police.”

He was right.  Normally there were blue uniformed police officers directing traffic, or, at least, waving their arms and being largely ignored by the city’s drivers.  There was not one in sight.

“You’re right,” agreed Dickson.  “What does it mean?”

Alex also spoke quietly.  “I think it means that the coppers know something that we do not.”

They were on the road to the airport, when they were stopped by an Army roadblock.  An unshaven soldier of around nineteen, his rifle hanging slackly by his side came to the right hand side of the car.  He raised the weapon sufficiently to point it at Millar, and indicated that he should lower the window.

J’ai faim.”

“Sorry, pas Francais” lied Millar.  Selosse leaned across and pushed a little bundle of notes into Millar’s hand.

“Give him that, Alex, for Christ’s sake.”

Alex passed the money to the soldier, who stared at the Ulsterman for several seconds.  His pupils were dilated and his eyes bloodshot.  He walked away.

Selosse drove on.  “I think it is not so clever to play games with these guys, Alex.  Remember, he has the gun.  He might even have some ammunition for it.”

Alex Millar was thus rebuked, and recalled the bush in Angola when someone else had pointed out to him that another soldier also had a gun.

They arrived at Selosse’s destination, and parked the car in a small gravel covered car park.  The Peugeot was the only vehicle there.  They walked about fifty or sixty metres to a house, passing a series of small cages containing various multi coloured birds, and a couple of small sad looking brown monkeys.

“They had a small zoo here at one time.  People, ex pats, diplomats, used to visit at weekends, and have a meal or a picnic.  It was magnificent here in the seventies.  I was at the French Embassy then, and Madame was also magnificent.”  Selosse spoke sadly, and reflectively.

Madame was less than magnificent now, a large pigeon-chested woman, who clasped Marc to her bosom and hugged him energetically, speaking a torrent of inexplicable French.  He introduced her in English.  “Magda, may I introduce Alex Millar, and Willie Dickson, two of my English colleagues.  Alex, Willie, Madame Bloch.”  Millar, an Ulsterman, and Dickson, a Scot, decided to let this insult pass, as Magda would probably not understand the difference between English and British.

They shook hands politely, and Madame Bloch led them into her shop, which had a restaurant off to the left, an establishment that did not appear to have been used as such for several years.  The shop contained African art, but like none that Alex had ever seen before.  There was none of the usual wood and stone carvings of faces and animals.  Instead there were dozens of brightly coloured birds, carved from a number of separate, but interlocking wooden pieces.  In addition, the shop contained many examples of carvings of couples, normally standing, usually with their arms around each other, in a most unusual grey wood.  He picked up one such piece, and turned it round and round, marvelling at its quality.  She came up to him.

“Do you like these, Mr Millar?  They are all made by a very clever local artist.  Most unusual, would you agree?”

“They are incredible, and I am Alex.”

“All right, Alex.  I am Magda.”  He picked up on an accent in her spoken English, which he not noticed in her French.

Sind sie Deutsche, Magda?”

“Ja, ja, ich bin Deutsche.   Kennen sie Deutschland?”

They spoke about Germany, as Millar moved around the shop, and purchased several items.  He told her of his Army service there, and she explained how she had married a Frenchman, and came to live in Kinshasa, in the seventies, when life had been so much better.  It was too late now, as everything they owned was here in this house and this shop, and if they returned to Europe, they would have nothing.  At that moment an attractive young blonde woman, wearing blue denim shorts, and a white blouse tied at the waist, came into the shop carrying a small child, and walked into what had been the restaurant.  Alex watched her in admiration, realising since he had known Francesca, most of his normal reactions had returned.

“My daughter, Monique.  She is married to a Belgian, and, as you saw, they have a baby.  Three more reasons why we cannot leave here.”

He paid for his purchases with US dollars, as did Dickson, and they all sat in the tired restaurant and drank coffee, while Magda told of the corruption and incompetence which had reduced a potentially rich country to less than a third world state.

“One day Mobuto will be gone.  I would like to believe it will be better then, but I think it will be the same.  It will always be the same in this country.  If it is not Mobuto, then someone else, but the same.  C’est Afrique.”

They drove thoughtfully back to the city, and kept their appointments at the British and American embassies.  The messages from the British First Secretary, and the American Press Officer were no different from the middle aged German lady.  Everyone agreed that ‘something was going to happen’, even if no one knew what that ‘something’ might be.  That evening, Marc cried off the dinner engagement, and Alex and Willie waited in the hotel lobby for Manners to arrive.  When he did, he was accompanied by an armed soldier, and a second soldier was driving the Land Rover.  Millar and the Australian shook hands warmly.

“Taking no chances, Richard?  I never thought I’d live to see a proud Air Force officer having to rely on the brown jobs for security.”  Millar enjoyed teasing his friend, not only in service rivalry, but also as part of the eternal Australia versus England game.

“Yeah, mate, not my idea at all, but it is bloody good insurance.  These guys are from the DSP, you know the Presidential Guards.   I pay them, and their unit gets a cut as well, so it’s good business for all.  But, and believe me, nobody messes with these babies.  Anyway, the security guys in London insist on it.”

They ate in a smart Chinese establishment, with good food and wine.   The two DSP men sat at an outside table, and were served a meal.  The Land Rover was ten feet away.  They were the only diners, and the staff, who outnumbered the customers by about three to one, all appeared very anxious for their guests to leave, putting up the shutters even as they got up from their table.

“They are not like that normally, “ explained Manners, “but everyone knows that something is going to blow.  Come back to my place for a couple of beers, and I ‘ll take you back to the IC later.”

Things blew that night.

It was about eleven thirty when they heard a staccato chatter from the street.

***

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