Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chapter 29: Boiling a Frog

Waiting is hard, but it is the soldier’s lot. We all knew how to do it. I decided to follow my earlier thoughts and allowed Cpl Maseka to run the ambush. I knew I would have to work hard to suppress my instinct to interfere though so I decided to find a place that would allow me to watch what was happening without interfering too much. Once I had settled myself into a dark shadow at the corner of the building, I took another look around.

The parking lot had a lot less cars than it would have had during the day; a quick count told me there were sixteen. I guessed that the nine or so parked under shade-cloth were Doctors and other staff. From what I had seen of the people waiting in the Emergency Room, I guessed that most of the patients at this time of night had arrived either by foot or by taxi. That reminded me of one of the vulnerabilities that we had, The last thing we needed was more civilians getting caught up in this. Cpl Maseka had positioned some of his soldiers so that they should be able to warn off anyone who got in the way, but it nagged at me as a blind spot. I didn’t like having any variables that I couldn’t control.

I glanced across at the Land Rover, which was parked just around the corner from where I was standing. It was positioned so that it would be out of any potential line of fire. Alina was sitting in the driver’s seat where she could watch me. She wouldn’t be able to see what was happening out in front of the hospital; her job was simply to start the Land Rover on my signal and then scoot out of the seat to allow me to jump in. I peered over and saw a vague blob through the window, so I gave her a reassuring wave.

I had long since learnt how to keep awake and alert at night, and my particular trick was to make sure that I was on my feet. For some reason, when the pre-combat nervousness hit me, I would fall asleep. Just drop off with no warning or nodding, and it happened irrespective of any of the normal tricks. Being cold or uncomfortable was no help. The only thing that worked was being on my feet and making my brain work on all the angles. Thinking about all the possible variations of what could happen so that when something did happen, and the plan went awry, I would have already thought through a whole slew of variations from which I could pick and choose in the middle of the chaos.

This was something that it was extremely difficult to teach young leaders; NO plan survives contact with the enemy. Not even close. My own theory about the ‘Fog of War’ was that it was a mental fog. The battlefield smoke and noise did contribute of course, but an agile brain could deal with that simply enough by knowing where all the elements were and constantly updating that mental map as the battle progressed, both from radio reports and from knowing the terrain and the expected actions of the unit. This presupposed that the unit had drilled sufficiently in training that they would follow the standard operating procedures by instinct. The radio reports, in a good unit, should be simply to update the commander on variations on those drills.

The real fog was the natural reaction of most people to being confronted with combat, especially in a leadership role. Their brains would refuse to process the information in coherent way. I had seen it too often to doubt it. It was something that we could only guess at by making training as realistic as possible, but the reality often overwhelmed even those who did well in training. There were some who operated well in those situations. I had discovered I was one of them and I expended extraordinary effort to identify others that were the same. These were people who didn’t block out the sensory over-load, but who thrived in the input; who were able to take it all in and process it in split seconds to form a coherent picture of what was going on, and then were able make decisions based on that information and convey those decisions as orders to their subordinates in a clear and concise manner so that they were understood. The few exceptional ones were the ones that got obeyed, instantly and without question, in the middle of the battle. There was something in the voice or attitude of those that conveyed itself almost magically to the soldiers around them and under their command.

Sgt Major Dhlamini was not such a leader. He was a very, very good senior NCO, but not what I looked for in this context. Cpl Maseka was. I had y eye on him for a commission. The rule was that he had to be promoted to full Sergeant though before he could be sent on Officer’s Formative training, but that was, as far as I was concerned, a formality. I was just waiting for the signal from Army HQ confirming his promotion so that I could send him to start the process of gaining a commission.

All these thoughts and more swirled through my mind as I weighed the possible actions of each of the soldiers waiting in the dark, and postulated those of the enemy that we expected. In some ways, I thought it might be considered over-kill to plan and think through everything so obsessively, but it takes more time to describe than to do. The process of tactical evaluation was both a skill and an art, and it needed to be practised constantly to hone it. I had taught myself to evaluate things around me constantly in these terms, and it was a process that ran as a sub-routine of my brain during almost every waking moment, so while my surface thoughts were considering whether Cpl Maseka and his men would react as I expected them to, and if Cpl Maseka himself would lead them in the way that I hoped he would, my brain had been busy watching and evaluating the scene constantly.

I suddenly came on full alert as I saw a car turn into the parking lot. I was pretty sure that this was the car we were expecting, and a quick glance at Cpl Maseka confirmed that he thought the same, but what had caught my attention was a car that had been second in the queue behind the one turning in which had coasted to a stop next to the road before the entrance.

My adrenalin suddenly kicked me into high gear. I turned and signalled to Alina as I ran towards the Land Rover. I hadn’t consciously processed all the information yet, I just knew that something was very wrong.

I grabbed onto the Land Rover door and barely touched the driver’s door step on my way into the seat. Alina had barely cleared the seat before I was stomping on the accelerator and hitting the switch that turned on the row of spot-lights on the roof-rack. In the sudden glare of light, it became obvious that the second car was filled with ‘muscle types’ as I was staring into the barrels of at least three rifles. By the time the deep sounding chatter of weapons on automatic informed me that we were being shot at with AK’s, the Land Rover was three-quarters of the way across the parking lot. I spared a micro-second to glance at Cpl Maseka and his helper, and saw that they had taken cover behind a row of cars, before the Land Rover ramped right over the curb dividing the parking lot from the street. The next second, the bull-bar in the front of the Land Rover had caught the sedan car right in the centre of mass, across the driver and rear passenger doors, and was shoving it bodily across the road. I shifted down a gear and floored the accelerator again, but in my haste I had selected the wrong gear and the Landy stalled.

The car I had hit was tilted up at about fourty-five degrees on two wheels and the gun-men who had been shooting at us had been thrown back into the interior of the car. I grabbed the hand-brake and pulled it up to hold the Landy in place, then pulled my hand-gun and jumped out of my door.

As I advanced cautiously around the front of the mortally wounded car, with my weapon held out in front of me in the approved two-handed grip, I could see that I had been spectacularly successful. I could see the driver through the front wind-screen of the car and it as clear from the angle of his head that he was no longer a threat. The passenger side of the front wind-screen had been shot out and there was blood and gore all over the front bonnet. It took me a second to realise that one of the shooters in the back seat must have been firing when we hit and hadn’t stopped. ‘Own Goal’ I thought smugly to myself. Just as I was about to pat myself on the back, I saw movement to my left and swung my fire-arm to cover it. Before I could even get my weapon around, I was startled by the sound of two shots going off in rapid succession, and I saw one of the shooters who had obviously got out of the car, going down. I glanced further left and was surprised to see that Daise was standing in the Landy’s passenger doorway with her weapon extended and obviously looking for more targets.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter 28: Adding responsibilities

The song ended and I paid Bettina for the ‘dances’ she had done for me. While I did so, she told me where she was going to take Katerina and I told her to do what she had to do and that I would meet her somewhere along the way.

Once she had left the booth, I left enough money on the table to pay for my drinks and to tip the waitress, then I got up and walked out of the club. I gave Roy and Maseka a slight nod as I walked past their tables on the way out.

I crossed the parking-lot and jumped into the Land Rover, once Sgt Major Dhlamini had shifted over into the passenger seat. I didn’t say a word; just started up and drove off.

“What now?” the Sgt Major asked quietly. I guessed he was responding to my dark mood.

“We have a rescue to plan and execute.”


“Two of the women who work there.”


“Wait one. I’m thinking. I’ll brief you now.” My mind was working furiously, trying to cover all the angles. I was sure that the actual rescue of the women would be fairly trivial to arrange, but the longer term consequences were a little more serious. We had come to a water-shed moment. Everything to this point had been at arms length, and I thought that while Dimitri might be pissed off about Alina and Daise disappearing, we hadn’t had any direct confrontation. It was possible, unlikely, but possible, that Dimitri would eventually let their defection to me slide … eventually. Stealing two of his women right from under his nose was something different entirely. I suspected that he would see it for what it was; a direct threat to his authority and control.

I pulled into the parking lot of the City Hospital and turned off the Land Rover. “Ok,” I said, “here’s the story. I met one of the dancers in there, Bettina, and she told me a story. She is being blackmailed to stay there and to work as a prostitute, rather than as just a dancer. She is going to bring a woman called Katerina to this hospital in about an hour. Katerina was violently sodomised earlier and needs medical attention.”

“Oh,’ Alina flinched when she heard that.

“Sorry Alina. No way I could make that sound any better than what it is.”

“No problem Rupert. I just keep getting reminded of Dimitri and …”

“Yes, I realise that. It seems to be his signature.”

“It’s also clever of him,” Daise interjected, “it means that the woman can continue to work.”

“True, although from what Bettina tells me, this was so bad that she needs to receive medical attention.” Just then my phone rang. I saw that it was a call from Roy so I answered it, “Howzit Roy. You out of the club?”

“Yes. You see what you needed?”

“Yes. Meet us at the City Hospital.”

“Ok, be there in a few minutes.”

I told the Sgt Major to SMS Cpl Maseka to get out of the club and call us when he was out, then climbed out of the Land Rover and told Daise and Alina to come with me. We walked into the entrance to the Emergency Room and looked around. There was the usual crowd for that time of night; victims of the usual shootings, stabbings and hijackings mixed in with the kids with high fevers and drunken idiots who had crashed their cars. We sat down and watched the operation for a few minutes.

“Alina, go to the bathroom please and wait there with Daise. When Bettina and Katerina arrive, I will send them in there to you. You can tell them that you are with me and keep them there till I call you. Ok?”

“Sure,” Alina responded and got up. Daise bent over, draped her arms round my neck and gave me a kiss, then followed Alina into the ladies’ bathroom.

I got up and went out to the parking lot again. Roy was there talking to the Sgt Major and as I joined them, Cpl Maseka and his crew pulled up. I briefed them all on what had happened and laid out the Ops Order that I had come up with. I could see that they had all put on their ‘war faces’, so I used the standard format for verbal orders. I knew that the familiar ritual would make things seem familiar to them and settle everyone done.

“Orders. Situation: Enemy,” I began and saw a slight smile flash briefly across the Sgt Major’s face. He obviously recognised what I was doing and why. When he nodded faintly at me, I was reassured that he approved.

“Our enemy in general is Dimitri and his crew. Current indications are that the crew consists of between twenty and thirty men with unknown training. They are armed with hand-guns and, possibly, with AK-47’s and variants.

“Own Forces. Two females inside and those of us standing here. Attachments/Detachments. None unless you count Roy as a cop.” I paused for the expected laughter. I could see that the tension was slightly relieved and carried on a little more informally.

“Ok, the situation is that we have two women who will be escorted by at least one of Dimitri’s crew from the club. As far as I know, Dimitri has no idea that anyone is interested in the women, and the guy is being sent along just to ensure that the women don’t run away. When they get into the Emergency Room, I will be sitting there and I will try to get the women to go to the bathroom, where Alina and Daise are waiting. Once they’re out of the way, then I want Roy to pull his police ID and ask the goon to go outside with him. I’ll cover his back by remaining in the background inside, and once the goon leaves, I’ll escort the women out to the vehicles. Sgt Major, you’ll run the outside operation. I want the car that they arrive in to be watched, and as soon as they are inside, it must be disabled. When Roy and the goon exit, they need to be covered and I want over-watch cover for me when I bring the women out. You need to assign a driver for my vehicle so that as soon as we come out, we can be picked up at the entrance with as little exposure as possible. Roy will search the goon, and I am sure he will pick up on something that he can use as a pretext to arrest him. Once he has the goon loaded up, and we have been picked up, then everyone is to saddle-up and make for my place. Questions?”

“Yes, what do we do if there is more than one ‘goon’?” Sgt Major Dhlamini asked.

“Ok, two possibilities. I guess that there won’t be more than two of them. If there are two, then either one or both will go inside. If one stays outside, then once the other is inside, you take out the one who stays outside. If they both go inside, then I’ll have to provide support for Roy. Make sense to you Roy?”

“Actually, no. I think we should just block the women off in the bathroom and get the guys out here to make a loud racket to draw the goons out, then handle them when they are out here. I am a little concerned with getting too far outside my jurisdiction and also a bit nervous about getting too closely identified with something so far off the books,” Roy said.

“Sorry, I didn’t think of that. Ok, rethink. I don’t want to tangle with these guys, even if it is just one, without separating them from the women. I don’t want to have them caught in any cross-fire or used as hostages,” I thought out loud.

“Major,” Cpl Maseka interjected, “why don’t we take the goon at the car when he arrives? We can act as car-guards and he shouldn’t be suspicious when we approach him. I can take the driver, and if there is more than one, Rifleman Ndlovo can come up on him from the other side. You can be the ‘snatch team’ and the Sgt Major and the rest of the guys can provide cover.”

“Good call. Probably a lot cleaner that way. Ok, make it so. Let’s set up for them now.” It took me only a few second to recognise that the Cpl was better placed to make a tactical call at this level. I had just been subtly reminded of that fact and I made a mental note to be more aware of it in future.

I called Daise and told her to bring Alina and wait in the Land Rover, then in conjunction with Cpl Maseka and Sgt Major Dhlamini, we set up our ambush and settled in to wait.

Chapter 27: Meeting the Enemy

 Cpl Maseka and his cronies had no trouble engaging dancers for their table. I thought quietly to myself that this duty was no hardship for them, the bill was being paid by me after all. I did notice that while they had dancers busy almost every second song, they were taking care to have at least one of their number watching all the time, while the other three paid attention to the dancer. I was satisfied that they would notice if anything went wrong.

Dimitri and his companion didn’t stop talking the whole time that I watched them, although the dynamic changed after a while, and it looked as if it was now Dimitri who was issuing orders or instructions, and the other man who was simply listening to what he was being told.

The waitress came around again and offered me a refill on my drink. When I refused, she lent close to me and whispered in my ear, “Is there a specific dancer that you would like to talk to?” I realised that not engaging a dancer might draw attention that I didn’t want, so I told her that I was interested in talking to Bettina. She seemed unsurprised by this, nodded and left. A few minutes later Bettina walked up to my table. She stretched out her hand, and I shook it without thinking.

“Can I sit here?” Bettina asked.

“Sure. That was a great dance.” I told her.

“Thank you. I try my hardest. I noticed you weren’t that interested I what I had to show?”

“Oh, I was interested all right. I am just not really comfortable in places like this,” I laughed.

“What is your name?”

“Rupert. I guess your stage name is Bettina?”

“Yes. It’s also my real name,” she said with an amused smile on her face. “Why aren’t you comfortable here?”

“I suppose I value my own privacy too much, and it seems like an invasion of yours to have hordes of men staring at you. I can’t help projecting my own feelings sometimes.”

“Oh, I have no problems with it. I work damn hard to keep my body looking like this, so I take pride in displaying it.”

“Well that’s good to know. It makes me feel a little better. Do all the dancers feel the same way you do?”

“Some of them,” she answered with a slight grimace.

“Oh,” I prompted gently, “what about those that don’t?”

Bettina gave me an evaluating look, then looked over her shoulder before turning back to me. “You aren’t a cop, I can always tell, but you are looking for something. What is it?”

“Why do you think that?”

“You don’t feel right. Your attention is in all the wrong places. Are you some sort of cop?”

“No. I am a soldier some of the time.”

“Mmm that does help to explain it. You aren’t here for the girls though?”

“You’re very perceptive. Can you keep a secret?”

“You need to get me to dance for you or something or else I will have to move on.”

“Ok, that shouldn’t be any hardship,” I said with a smile. “How about a table dance?”

“It might be better to have a ‘private’ lap dance. That way we can close the curtain.”

“Cool. Do I need to pay you first or something?”

“No. Just wait.” Bettina stood up and I saw her catching the eye of one of the bouncers. He nodded to her and she reached up and pulled the curtain closed. “Ok, that should do it. What is the secret?” As she said this, she started to do a strip-tease.

“You don’t need to actually strip,” I told her.

“Yes I do. I am working after all, and if anyone checks I need to be doing my job.”

“Before I tell you the secret, could I ask you about the conditions here?”

“What do you mean?” Bettina asked as she removed her green bra.

“I know this is a strip-club, but I have heard rumours that things have changed since the change in management. Is that true?”

“Yes. Sit back on the bench.” I leant back and watched as Bettina removed her panties and climbed up onto the bench. When her knees where on either side of my legs, she leaned forward so that her mouth was right next to my ear. “A few months back a bunch of foreigners took the place over. Since then they have employed a few girls from overseas, mostly Russian and Ukrainian. The VIP room has been turned into a brothel.”

“Is it only the foreign girls who work there?”

“No. They have been putting pressure on all of us to work there. I make enough so that I have been able to hold them off, but some of the other girls have started to go back there.”

“What are the foreign girls like? Are they happy with their work?”

“That’s the problem. They don’t say much about it, but I get the feeling from what they don’t say that they don’t have much choice.”

“They’re force?”

“Pretty much. You will still see them out on the floor, but mostly they don’t dance on the ramp. They aren’t really dancers. Some of them spend all their time in the VIP room, and they can’t work the floor.”

“Why not?”

“Too many bruises.”

“Is someone hurting them?”

“Take a look at my left breast.”

Bettina pulled back a bit and her breasts were level with my face. From this close, I could see that they had a coating of makeup on them. When I concentrated on her left breast, I could see that the make-up was concealing a faded bruise.

“What happened to your breast?”

“A few days back the one guy out there … did you see the short one at the table near the door?” I nodded. “His name’s Dimitri. Anyway, he arrived and he kinda took over. The guy he’s talking to is the manager, but Dimitri has been telling him what to do ever since he arrived. Anyway, he called all the girls in, one by one, for an interview. When he saw me, he asked me why I wasn’t working the VIP room. When I told him that I was a stripper and not a prostitute, he reached out and grabbed me by the breast and started twisting. It was very strange, he didn’t ask me anything or tell me to do anything, he just twisted. I cried out and then he seemed to get excited. The more I cried, the more excited he got. I dropped down to my knees trying to get away from him and he let me go. I think he was going to do something else to me, but his phone rang and he chased me out.”

“Why are you still here then?”

“I’ve been waiting for the end of the month so that I can get paid. It’s only another three days. Once I have my money, I’m out of here.”

“Has he bothered you again since then?”

“Not me specifically. I think he’s been too busy. He scares me. I saw him looking at me a little earlier and I had almost decided that I was going to leave tonight. Screw the money. He’s crazy.”

“I think more than you know.”

“He’s why you’re here,” Bettina said in a sudden flash of insight. “I heard one of the bouncers talking. He said that they were trying to find some guy. You’re that guy, aren’t you?”

Just then the curtain twitched open and a bouncer stuck his head in. “Another song Bettina?” he asked.

“Yes, maybe even two more,” she told him.

He disappeared again, pulling the curtain closed again.

“See,” Bettina said, “I told you we had to do this properly.”

“Properly is not the word. You know that even with what we have been discussing, I have been excited by you.”

“Of course I know. I wouldn’t be any good at my job if I didn’t pay attention to those big details, now would I?”

I decided to answer her earlier question. “I am just here to find out a little about Dimitri and his crew. Do you know more about him?”

“Actually, there is one of the Russian girls that you should ask. I only know what I have been able to see.”

“Which one? Could you point her out to me?”

“No. She is sitting in the change-room. Dimitri decided to teach her an object lesson a little earlier. That’s what convinced me he’s crazy. Really crazy.”

“What object lesson?”

“He said that we were all sluts. His sluts, and we would do whatever he told us to do. He grabbed Katerina and bent her over the table, then he raped her in her arse.”

“Shit. In front of you?”

“In front of all of us. That was just a little while before I came out to dance. It was the final straw for me. She is sitting in there now, bleeding. He told me that I could take her to the hospital later.”

“Why would he let you do that?”

“She doesn’t speak much English. I’m supposed to go so that I can tell the doctors what they need to know.”

“Isn’t he worried that you’ll give him away?”

“No. He said he would send one of his goons along who would hurt me badly if I did.”

“Ok. I tell you what, how would you feel about me taking you out of this situation.”

“What do you mean?”

“I already have a bit of a ‘dispute’ with the man. I was thinking that if I got you and Katerina away from the ‘goon’, that you could help me find out what I need to know.

“I don’t know if I can trust you completely. How do I know that you aren’t some kind of weirdo?”

“You don’t. What I will do is make up the money you are missing by leaving here, and promise that I will do my best to look after the two of you.”

“Three actually.”


“I have a young daughter. She’s seven. She’s actually the real reason I didn’t leave immediately. Dimitri said that he would hold her hostage for my obedience.”

“Shit. Ok, know this. You and your daughter will be safe with me.”