Saturday, August 8, 2009

Chapter 41: Change of Direction

I woke with someone shaking my shoulder. It took me a few seconds to orientate myself. I looked out of the window of the Landrover and recognized Westville hospital.

I sat up and thanked Rifleman Mkize for driving us, then clambered out the passenger door. All the rest of the bunch climbed out after me and Daise and Alina stuck close to me as we walked. I got the sense that the relationship between the two of them had changed significantly over the past few days.

Alina had been the stronger; the more worldly of the two, and Daise had given off a sense of innocence and naiveté. That had changed subtly with Daise definitely taking the lead and Alina following her. I suddenly occurred to me that Daise had killed two men in the last week and been exposed to combat for the first time, and I hadn't really given all that much thought to how it had affected her. From what I could see, she was just fine, but I knew how deceptive that could be. I resolved to ensure she got professionally 'debriefed' as soon as possible. The last thing I needed was for her to join the ranks of the combat-related PTSD sufferers, and I knew, from bitter experience, that the likelihood of dealing effectively with the stress was directly proportional to how soon after it happened she got counseled or debriefed.

The bunch of us entered the lobby of the hospital and I got everyone to sit in the couches provided for waiting. Daise wouldn't leave me alone, of course, while I went to find out where Roy and Sharon were.

We found Gill on the third floor, sitting quietly on a couch worn shiny by the many worried people who had been there before her.

She looked pale and drawn and her worry and fatigue were written large across her face.

"Hello Gill," I greeted her quietly, "how're they doing?"

Gill started, caught by surprise. She looked up at me and I was wracked with guilt at the sight of the pain in her eyes. "Hi Roy, the doctors say they'll heal well physically. There is some question how well Sharon will handle the mental aspects."

"I'm not surprised to hear that Gill. Relieved to hear about the physical. I know some other girls who've gone through some similar stuff with the same gang, maybe they can help by talking it through with Sharon later on?"

"Whatever helps," Gill shrugged in reply. "At this point I'm still trying to get my head around it all."

"Just let me know if there is anything I can do. Anytime. OK?"

Gill just nodded and dropped gaze to her lap again. I turned to look at the policeman guarding the door to the ward. "Ok if we go in to see them?"

He looked at me for a second, then, obviously recognising who I was, stood aside and gestured me to enter.

Half an hour later we were back on the road, headed for Johnny's place. I was simmering quietly, but my tension must have been as readily apparent to Daise as hers was to me. Hearing the story from Roy had not been easy, especially when the physical evidence was so clear.

When we got to Johnny's place, he showed us where he had piled a stack of blankets and pillows and we spread out over the lounge and the spare bedroom. I ended up being very warmly snuggled between Daise and Alina, and before I knew it, the stresses of the day caught up with me and I was fast asleep.

In the morning, the consensus was that there was no way we could feed the hordes in Johnny's tiny kitchen, so we all headed out to the Wimpy nearby. We got there just as they opened so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Everyone place their breakfast orders, and once the immediate hunger pangs were satisfied, we started talking through our options. There were lots of declarations of intent, but no concrete ideas. I kept quiet and just listened. Eventually, Johnny turned to me and asked, "So what's going through that brain of yours? I can see the wheels turning and smell the rubber burning..."

I smiled at his joke, and didn't say anything, but the whole table got very quiet as everyone turned to me, waiting to see what I had come up with.

"Ok, I'm not too clear on the details yet, but I have a vague idea. Essentially there are two basic principles. Firstly, we have been waiting for them to come to us, and we all know that the best form of defense is attack. We saw what happened when we took them on directly yesterday, we cleaned their clocks. The second is that we've been playing to their strengths. I think we need to take advantage of the fact that this is our home ground, and use that to our advantage."

"Don't get all philosophical on us now, just point us in the right direction and pull the trigger," Bird said between bites of his third helping of breakfast.

"Relax Bird," I smiled, "the one part of our advantage is that we have time. That's sort of the point I was trying to make. We have no need to rush, they are the ones trying to set up an operation to be ready in time for the World Cup. Our only timetable is the one we make for ourselves. I think what we need to do is take some time out to rest and recover, plan properly and train. Once we are ready, then we can execute our plan."

"So what do you want to do Rupert?" Johnny asked.

"As I said yesterday, I want to move everyone out to the farm. There's plenty of space for us all to stay, and as you know, some nice training facilities."

"What farm is this?" asked Daise, puzzled.

I smiled at her. "It's our other business. Johnny, Bird, Sgt. Maj. Dhlamini and I are joint owners of a farm out towards Cato Ridge. We have an adventure center out there. A lot of corporates use us for team building events, and we get quite a few school groups and Scout Troops going through our various activities. We normally run it on demand, when someone requests a particular package. Bird handles most of the day-to-day stuff, the rest of us get involved as we are needed."

"What sort of 'adventure' stuff is this?" Alina asked.

"All kinds of stuff. We have a pretty good paintball setup, with urban and bush arenas, kayaking, abseiling, rock-climbing, an obstacle course, a quad-bike course and a very tough 4x4 track. We also keep some game there, not much just a small herd of Zebra, some Giraffe and quite a few Springbok and a couple of Eland. We recently got some Ostriches and a pair of Warthogs moved in on their own. We suspect that they escaped from the Ithala Game Reserve, which borders our property on the eastern side. Their fence through the river is always giving trouble, so some game slips through."

"That sounds wonderful," Daise said. I was astounded by the look of adoration and wonder on her face, and it made me feel all squishy inside. "But aren't the animals dangerous?"

"One of the things we do is a mini-survival course, where we teach people about the bush, how to treat it with respect so that they can stay live in harmony with it. Nothing in the bush is really dangerous if you are well prepared and act correctly."

"Except for Hippo," Bird muttered darkly.

I laughed. It was an old joke, but one that always managed to tickle me. Daise looked to me for an explanation. I rolled my eyes at Bird and explained.

"Forget everything you've heard about how dangerous Lions and Elephants and things like that are. Other than disturbing a Mamba or a Puff-Adder, the most dangerous animals in the bush are the Hippos and the 'Flat Dogs'. They kill more humans in Africa than any other animal."

"Flat Dogs? What are those?" Daise asked again.

"Crocodiles. Bird hates hippos cause he was chased by one once. Bit his Klepper boat in half. Him and his partner were very lucky to get out alive."

"So, do you hunt these animals?" This time from Alina. I could see Lisa waiting for the answer to this question, and guessed that she had the typical kid's misconception engendered by their 'Disneyfication'.

Johnny, Bird and I shared a look. Both of them shrugged at me which I interpreted to mean I could tell them or not.

"The short answer is no, we don't hunt the animals. We realised a long time ago, that the only animal that is dangerous and wily enough to hunt, is another human being armed the same way you are. What do you think Daise, after today, do you think you would get as much of a rush from shooting a buck?"

Daise looked startled and I could see she didn't know what to say.

"Don't answer that. We're not against hunting, especially for food, but it's just not something that we do. If other people want to hunt, not on our land, that's not a problem to us."

Daise's expression turned thoughtful, and I could see she was starting to process the events she had been part of in a slightly different way.

"Make no mistake, it is not something that I would wish on anyone else, but combat has to be the greatest rush you can experience, even though we've all had to wash our underpants out at some stage..."

I could see that Bettina was uncomfortable with the conversation taking place in front of her daughter, so I checked to see if everyone had finished eating. Everyone, except Bird, had, so I got up and paid for the meal at the cashier's station and we all trooped out to the vehicles. I ignored Bird's mutters about having to leave food uneaten.

We drove back to Johnny's place, where we loaded up the little we had managed to salvage of our possessions and hit the road. We detoured via the Pavilion Mall where it only took two hours to outfit everyone with the basics, before heading out to the farm.

Chapter 40: Counting the cost

Chris had just finished patching me up, when Bird appeared on the bank above us.

“Hey Boss,” he called down and both Johnny and I turned to see what he wanted. I deferred to Johnny.

"Status?" Johnny asked.

"Looks like we got most of them. Rasta's got a bee in his bonnet about some spoor he's seen heading off west, but I told him he can't go haring off on a hunt now," Bird reported. I nodded my head in agreement, although I would regret that decision later.

"We have no own-force casualties. Four of the bad guys are still breathing. We're still finding and counting the bodies."

"Thanks Bird," Johnny said, "leave the bodies for the police to recover. I think we should take the prisoners and move back to the parking lot. Ok Rupert?"

"Sounds good to me," I agreed with Johnny. "I'd like to make sure that all my people are safe, and I'd really like to find out how this arsehole, Dimitri, found out where I live. Maybe we'll have some luck with getting the prisoners to talk..."

Chris helped me stand, with Daise supporting me on the other side, and we started making our way back down to the parking lot.

It wasn't too bad walking, now that I had been all strapped up, but I was reeling from the post-combat fatigue; mostly the after-effects of an adrenaline high. I thought briefly of the amphetamines we used in the old days, then decided that those drugs should be a last resort; I had loyal friends and employees, I wasn't operating five hundred klicks into enemy territory, so I decided to keep them in mind if I really got desperate at some later time.

When we arrived at the parking lot, I was surprised to see the Landrover with all the girls in it, parked there. I turned to Cpl. Maseka, who had come to meet us halfway, and he told me that it had been his call, as the safest place where he could protect them while still acting as a reserve element for me.

Any conversation on the issue was obviously not going to take place though, not until I had dealt with the semi-hysterical bunch of women who descended on me at that moment. There were exclamations and demands for explanations thrown around in four languages. Well, at least I could understand three of them; the Russian or Ukrainian, I was sure which, was flying between Daise, Alina and Kat. I figured Daise would sort that out and I proceeded to do my best to reassure the others that I was really going to be alright, that my wound was not that serious and would everyone PLEASE relax?

Eventually, the babble subsided and we got all the cats herded I mean, we got everyone into vehicles. A quick conference with Johnny decided our story for the police, and we started out to head back to my house.

I had thought that the house might be quite a bit damaged, but it was a lot worse than I had thought.

I walked through the burnt out ruins of my house, trying to identify what could possibly be salvaged. The contents of my safes was all fine, the safes were designed for that after all, but the rest was a complete mess. What was making me more than slightly upset though, was the growing realization that a good proportion of the damage was smoke and water damage or breakage. It looked as if the firemen had destroyed my house in order to save it.

Just getting to the stage where I could walk through the house had not been a trivial exercise. The police had descended in force, hot on the heels of the fire department and they were convinced that a mini-war had taken place. Johnny was very eloquent in his explanation of the bunch of us having the weapons as part of his security companies' training program, but it was apparent that the whole lot of us were going to have to spend some considerable time in the near future providing statements and telling our versions of the story.

I tried to get hold of Roy, thinking that he would be able to assist with the whole police thing but, unusually for him, the call went to voicemail. I left a message telling him that there was a situation and that we could do with his help.

Rifleman's Zondi's body had been removed to the morgue, and I had made the call to his father. The man was devastated and didn't even try to hide it. I promised to cover the costs of the funeral and felt guilty at the amount of gratitude that offer generated. I knew how important the funeral was in the Zulu culture, so I understood this was not going to be a trivial expense. With Sgt. Major Dhlamini out of action with his wound, I had already started to rely on Cpl. Maseka.

I walked out of the ruins of the house and stood under the large Acacia tree in the front yard. Cpl. Maseka had been trailing along behind me everywhere I went, and he stood now waiting to hear what I had to say.

Daise, Alina and Katerina had been waiting under the tree for me. Bettina was running around after Lisa who was fascinated by the fire-engines and what the firemen where up to.

Once Cpl. Maseka and I had joined the group under the tree, I started going through the various things that we needed to accomplish.

"Corporal," I started, "I want you to start getting things together for Zondi's funeral. I'll leave it to your judgement, but I'm thinking we'll need at least four cows, three or four hundred kilos of mielie-meal (corn porridge) and I whatever ingredients the abafasi will need to make beer. Spend what you need and let me know how much it costs. I'll organise the chapel and the hearse."

Cpl. Maseka nodded, and I could see from his expression that he approved wholeheartedly.

"Johnny," I greeted him as he joined us, "How's it going with the cops?"

"They are a little suspicious but they are buying most of it. They have already got some confirmation that these guys were Russian, so they know that at least part of my story is correct," Johnny reported.

"That helps," I said with some relief.

"Oh, by the way Corporal," Johnny said to Cpl. Maseka, "you underestimated the numbers you were facing by at least half. Initial estimates are that there were as many as twenty five of them, not the twelve you reported."

Cpl. Maseka frowned in thought for a moment. "There were definitely only twelve who were attacking the house when I made the call. I agree that there were more, but they only got involved later."

"That makes sense," Johnny replied, "I just thought you should know."

"We have some other things we need to arrange," I interjected, "such as a place to stay for the night."

"You are all welcome at my place, as you know. Even if this place wasn't destroyed, you'd have to stay somewhere else, 'cause they know where you live. It won't be safe here until this Dimitri character is dead, and maybe not even then," Johnny offered.

"Thanks Johnny. That's great. I think we'll have to move out to the farm, but I'd like to do that tomorrow. There's too much going on now."

My phone rang just then and as I saw from the caller ID it was Roy. "Hi Roy," I answered it.

"Hi Rupert, it's not Roy, it's Gill."

"Oh, sorry Gill. Did Roy get my message?"

"That's why I'm calling, Rupert," Gill said and I could hear the strain in her voice.

"What's wrong Gill," I asked, "Has something happened?"

"Yes. Roy was beaten very badly and Sharon, my daughter dammit, was brutally raped. I'm at Westville Hospital. They've both been admitted. Roy asked me to call and tell you he's sorry. It was the first thing he said when he came round. 'Tell Roy I'm sorry.' He said that before he even asked about Sharon. What the fuck have been up to Rupert?"

"Shit. Sorry Gill. I'll do whatever I can to help. I'm really sorry this had to happen. Are they going to be OK?"

"The doctors aren't committing themselves yet. You know this is why I divorced him, don't you? I expected something to happen on the job though, not to have him attacked at home and I never expected Sharon to get caught up in it."

"I'll drop in to see you guys a bit later. Please let me know if there's anything I can do."

There was no response. Gill had hung up the phone. I told the group what had happened as well as my suspicion that this was how the had managed to find out where I lived.

We loaded everyone up in the cars and set out. I felt like Lot's wife, wanting to look over my shoulder at the ruin that was being left behind. I was putting a good face on it, but my thoughts and emotions were in turmoil inside. I was really devastated by the ruin of my house, but that could be rebuilt. Kat's rape had happened before I rescued her. The death of Zondi and what had happened to Roy and Sharon though, that was different; personal, and my fault. If I hadn't been playing 'white knight' it wouldn't have happened.

As we drove, I resolved to take this fight to Dimitri; to wipe him and his ilk out completely.