Rössler made a disgusted noise with his tongue and pressed the power button on the remote control. The TV screen faded to black.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. The movie had just got slightly interesting.
“These people...they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.”
I looked over at him. “It’s just a movie,” I said. “A zombie movie. What do you expect?”
“Yes, but even a movie should have some connection to reality.” Rössler seemed really angry, far more so than I’d known him to be. “And this...thing...is an insult.”
“But there aren’t any such things as zombies,” I protested.
“Aren’t there?” Rössler asked. It didn’t sound as though he was expecting an answer, so I prudently kept my mouth shut. Though Rössler was well into his seventies, he was still a huge man and given to bursts of temper. “Aren’t there, really?” he repeated.
“Well,” I replied reluctantly, “none that I know of.”
“Oh, there are,” Rössler said. He jerked a contemptuous finger at the blank TV screen. “Corpses lurching about and eating people, who all go shelter in a mall – they aren’t like that, of course.”
I felt compelled to make some kind of response. “They aren’t?”
“No, they’re much more dangerous.” Rössler turned ostentatiously away and began looking through some books on the table at his elbow. “And they don’t eat anyone, either.”
I sighed, recognising the signs. Rössler was going to make me beg.
“So what are they really like?” I asked, knowing it was just the beginning. Rössler always had to be coaxed into one of his tales.
He opened a book and leafed through some pages. “You aren’t going to believe me.”
“You haven’t told me yet, so how do you know I won’t believe you?”
“Nobody has yet. That’s why I don’t tell anybody anything anymore about my time in Africa.”
This was beginning to get promising. “So it was in Africa, was it?”
“Yes.” Rössler put the book down and looked at me. “It was a long time ago, anyway. With the mayfly attention spans of people these days, what happened last week is already ancient history, let alone over forty years ago.”
“Forty years ago,” I repeated. That would be during Rössler’s time as a mercenary, of which he seldom spoke. Unlike other ex-mercs, he’d resolutely refused to write his memoirs or even to review anyone else’s for a magazine. “I don’t have a mayfly attention span, you know.”
“Yes, but you’re a writer. You’ll want to make it into a story, and spice it up for the chattering masses. And dumb it down at the same time.”
“I won’t write anything,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t say a word unless you ask me to.”
He snorted expressively. “The last time a writer told me that, I had to threaten to sue him afterwards.”
“You won’t have to sue me,” I said quickly. “But, of course, if you’d really rather not tell me, then...”
“I’ll tell you,” he said, with a dry smile, acknowledging the game we’d both been playing. “Go make some coffee first.”
I rose with alacrity and went to the kitchen.
I don’t know what you recall of the events in Krahania back in the early seventies [Rössler said]. Nobody nowadays seems to remember much. At most, if pressed, they’ll say that it was a mess, with warlord armies fighting each other, and in the end, one dictator was replaced by another. That’s about all.
Back then, as you know, I was a mercenary. Those days we didn’t hide behind names like “private security contractors” and the like – we were mercenaries, pure and simple, soldiers for hire. And we didn’t fight for corporations with stocks on the market, either; we signed up with mercenary commandos and we hired ourselves out to some very nasty people, to do their dirty work for them, so long as the money was good.
I was then not long out of the Foreign Legion, and I was glad enough of the opportunity to do some soldiering on my own; enough, I’d hoped, to be able to save up to open my own business afterwards. The only war to hand at the time was the crisis in Krahania, where a lot of mercs were already fighting on the side of the government.
I didn’t actually know a thing about the political situation in Krahania, and I didn’t care; today, if I were told to fight for such a collection of appalling criminals as the government of the country at that time, I would have refused outright. But then all I was concerned about was money.
So I bought a ticket and flew there via Nigeria, arriving in the capital, Robertville, on the early morning flight. Two days later I’d already joined a commando and was being driven out of the city in a truck, past the sandbagged portals of the Presidential Palace, on the way to the front.
At that time, the war had largely reached a stalemate, the front stabilising about forty kilometres from the capital. The collapse of the government, the fighting in the streets of Robertville, and the withdrawal of those of us mercenaries who were left – all that came later. At that time, we were expecting more mercenary reinforcements – and then, we thought, we’d cut through the rebels like a white hot knife through butter, and go home afterwards with full bank accounts.
The first days at the front passed without incident. I got to know the other mercenaries in my commando; they were all sorts, some South Africans, a couple of Australians, several French and Canadians and a few Europeans of assorted nationalities. All of them, without exception, hated the Africans – the government troops, on whose side they were supposed to be fighting, as well as the rebels.
The rebels, at that time, were thought to be a joke. Most of them were illiterate peasants from the hinterland, upset at their lands being taken away to give to mining corporations. A lot of them were high on khat – a narcotic leaf they chewed. They had no uniforms, no organisation except at the local level, and almost no communications. It was amazing to me that they had even got as far as they had.
What I hadn’t reckoned with was the role played by the shamans.
In that part of the world, shamans aren’t the sort of caricature you’ll find in Hollywood and boys’ adventure tales. They’re very real, and the hold they have over the people is very genuine, and very frightening. I’ve seen people lie down and die because a shaman put a curse on them; not that anything happened to them, they just gave up and died. I’ve seen shamans advise generals on military strategy – and the generals accepted the advice meekly. And the shamans had told the rebels that not only would they certainly win, they would be rendered invincible by the charms that the magic men made for them. And not only did the rebels know this, the government soldiers knew it as well, and they hardly thought it worth fighting. That’s why the government had hired us mercenaries to do its killing for it.
During the night, we could see the shamans’ fires burning on the other side of the lines, and we could hear their chanting. Sometimes we would fire mortar bombs off in the direction of the fires, but whether we ever hit anything we’d never know, and we didn’t have enough bombs to waste anyway.
Among the shamans we often heard the name of one in particular, Ojogor. The government troops whispered of him with terror, and when they saw any of us coming they’d pointedly fall silent. When we asked questions, they’d answer evasively, and take the first opportunity to leave or change the subject.
This Ojogor was, apparently, a local man, from a village only just on the other side of the front line. He was a “wise man”, the Krahanians whispered, who knew in advance when the rains would fail, and who would fall sick, and whose love affair would wither and die. And he was also a man who was renowned for the charms he could prepare, charms which could turn loss to success and defeat to victory.
Then one day I met a soldier. I’ll call him Jean Philippe; he might be still alive, and I don’t want to get him in any trouble by giving away his real name. Unlike the others, Jean Philippe was willing to talk, though reluctantly.
I still remember sitting with him in a wet trench, protected from the drizzle by a plastic sheet held up on poles. He was a small man, wiry and so dark that his skin was almost blue-black. He had a habit of grinning at all times, so it wasn’t ever really possible to gauge his moods.
This Ojogor was not just a man, he told me, after I’d given him an entire pack of cigarettes. He could change form if he wanted, and fly away like a bird, or crawl through the forest as a snake. He could disappear with a snap of his fingers, and make himself invisible, or he could make himself as big as a mountain if he chose. Jean Philippe knew someone who knew someone who had seen some of these wonders for himself.
“But you didn’t see it yourself,” I said. We were speaking French, of course. Krahania is a Francophone country, and back then not one in a thousand spoke a word of English.
“No,” he admitted after a little thought. “But it must be true. Francois, my friend, he knows someone who has seen it.”
“I see. And you don’t doubt that anyone can do these things?”
He shrugged. “What do I know? I am only one man, not educated either. But I know these strange things happen.”
“Ojogor has to go,” I told my unit commander, a South African named Piet, that evening.
He agreed. “We’ll never get these kaffirs to fight otherwise, man. But how do we get rid of him?”
“We know where he’s supposed to live, don’t we? Maybe we could take a small team – just three or four of us – and cross the lines tonight. We could take him out and return before dawn with his head. Prove to the Krahanians that he’s not just mortal but very dead.”
“I like it,” Piet agreed. He was a big man, all angular bone under sunburnt skin, as tawny as the Karoo. “But how do we know which is his house? We’d need a guide, and none of these kaffirs will guide us. One mention of the bastard and they’ll drop dead with fear.”
“I have just the man,” I said.
“No,” Jean Philippe replied, as I’d anticipated, as soon as I’d put the question. “No, I’m not going to do it.”
“Oh yes you are,” I said, and got down to it. I’m not going to talk about what I said to him – it isn’t relevant, and it would give away too many clues to his real identity – but after an hour’s persuasion he agreed. He wasn’t happy about it, of course, but he recognised that he didn’t have a choice.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “All you have to do is take us to the village and point the house out. After that you can leave it to us.”
“And you won’t do anything to anyone else?” he asked for the fourth or fifth time. “It’s only Ojogor you’re after?”
“That’s what I told you,” I repeated. “We aren’t planning on a bloodbath. The last thing we want is to rouse the whole village, wanting revenge. We’ll just go in, take care of Ojogor, and leave.”
“On your head be it, if you hurt anyone else,” he said.
We set out soon after dark. There were four of us in all – Jean Philippe in the lead, followed by Piet, a Frenchman called Marcel, and me. We’d decided that any larger numbers would simply mean to tip off the rebels. We hadn’t even told anyone else in the commando that we were going.
At that point our lines lay along a low ridge on one side of a shallow stream, with barbed wire entanglements in the bushes between our forward trenches and the water. The rebels didn’t even have a front line; their positions were scattered across the other side of the river, within hearing distance of each other; but at night, as long as we were silent, they would be easy enough to slip through.
It had rained most of the day and the sky was still heavily overcast when we set out. The water dripped from the trees, and the stream was running high, the noise of the flow combining with the croak of frogs downstream to cover most of our sound. We crawled on our stomachs through the brush till we came to the barbed wire, at a point where we had kept a break. Only Marcel cut a hand on the wire as we passed through, and he knew enough not to make a sound.
I’d better tell you a couple of things about Marcel. Most of the mercs in the commando were rough people, a lot of them truly vicious. They were the sort of men real armies wouldn’t want, classifying them as unsuited to discipline, loose cannons who couldn’t be trusted. But Marcel, even among these, stood out. I believe he was a genuine psychopath.
He wasn’t that much to look at. Of middle height, he had a round head and a thin moustache, which would be more suited to a bank manager rather than a mercenary. The only thing special about him was his arms.
They were immensely long, hanging most of the way to his knees, ending in hands like claws. And though they looked thin, they were wiry with muscle and covered with tattoos. Back then, tattoos weren’t nearly as common as they are now, and I truly believe that his ink provided a window on to his mind. I have never seen the likes of the things he had imprinted on his skin, before or since – from horned skulls with blazing eyes to fanged monsters eating women alive, outlined in flames, he had it all. And he had a reputation, as someone who truly enjoyed killing for its own sake. Even Piet was wary around him.
Why did we take him along? I think that if we had been able to afford to take a larger group, we’d never have included him. But Piet and I were going anyway, and for a third member we needed someone able to take care of himself. And whatever else Marcel was like, he could take care of himself.
We made our preparations before leaving; we carried only knives and submachine guns, leaving our packs behind. Except for Jean Philippe, we slathered black shoe polish over our faces and hands to hide our pale skin. As for clothing, our dark green uniforms, soaked with rain, were almost invisible in the night.
We crawled down that slope and to the water, which was rushing faster and higher than we’d anticipated, so that instead of crawling through it, we had to wade up to our chests, holding our submachine guns above our heads. But fortunately it was so dark that nobody saw us; not just the enemy, but our own side, who could be expected to shoot if they saw movement in the darkness where there should not be any.
Jean Philippe was the first out of the water, and I followed close behind him, keeping close watch. I didn’t expect that he’d give us away to the enemy, but I didn’t altogether trust him not to run away if he got the chance. Both Piet and Marcel had sworn to shoot him at the first sign of his betraying us, and he was far from certain that they wouldn’t shoot him out of hand anyway, if the rebels opened fire on us. So I also stuck close to him to shield him from them as far as possible with my body. He wasn’t a bad man, and I’d got him into this, so I felt I owed him that much.
By the time we’d made our way to the line of rebel outposts, I was running with sweat as much as rain. Only now did I realise what a totally idiotic and foolhardy enterprise this was. In all probability the shaman wouldn’t be without bodyguards, and there would be a fight in which we’d be outnumbered. Even if we somehow managed to massacre Ojogor, in all likelihood we’d be cut off while trying to get back and annihilated. And if by some miracle we did manage to get back with his head, so what? There were other shamans.
It was, of course, far too late to worry about these things now, and besides I had to keep my wits about me. We were making our way through the forest, of course, since the rebels would certainly be guarding the roads. It was slow going, with the darkness and the constant dripping water, and after a while I began to wonder if we were lost and begun going in circles.
I was just about to tap Jean Philippe on the shoulder and ask him about this when I heard someone clear his throat right beside me...
At times like this the mind shuts down and instincts take over. I froze in place, my hand still raised to touch Jean Philippe. I didn’t even dare to look out of the corner of my eye in case the movement gave me away. Jean Philippe, I could see, had frozen just as I had, and I could not hear any sound from Piet or Marcel behind me.
“Ourot kwazi-gbo?” a voice asked in the local Saiga tongue. I’d learned a couple of words of it, not nearly enough to understand what he was saying, but his voice sounded relaxed, not as though he was demanding information.
“A weki kanga,” someone else replied, and I knew that they weren’t talking to us. There was a scratch of a match a few metres away, and I saw hands cupped around the little flame to protect it. There were four or five of them, gathered round as they lit cigarettes from the match – I could dimly see them in silhouette. Then, still talking casually, they moved away. Only then could I permit myself to breathe again.
“One more time like that,” Marcel hissed behind me, when the rebel patrol had vanished, “and I’ll shoot you, Jean Philippe. I swear to god.”
“He didn’t make a sound, you saw for yourself,” I told him. “If I were you I’d keep a sharper look out instead of blaming him.”
Marcel snorted, but fell silent. We continued through the forest and after a while came across a narrow trail. It was probably the work of forest pigs, not man, but it let us make rather faster progress.
“We’re getting close,” Jean Philippe murmured, as we squeezed under a huge branch that hung low over the trail. I wondered how he knew – as far as I could tell we were still wandering around the middle of the forest – but in a few moments the trees suddenly vanished, and we stood at the edge of a crop field.
The clouds had broken up enough to show a few stars, and by their light, on the far side of the field we could see a village. It wasn’t much of a village – seven or eight huts straggling along the side of a little stream – and completely dark, without even the glimmer of a lantern. For all we could tell, it was deserted.
“Is that it?” I asked, surprised.
“Oui,” Jean Philippe affirmed, and pointed. “That is Ojogor’s house.”
I looked. It wasn’t even the largest of them, a small hut backed up to the bank of the stream. “Are you sure?”
Jean Philippe just looked at me. Go ahead and check for yourself if you don’t believe me, his look said.
I shrugged. “That’s the place,” I said to Piet and Marcel. “Let’s go.”
“Doesn’t look like much,” Piet growled to me, in English. “If the bleddy kaffir lied to us, I’ll blow his head off myself.”
“He knows that as well as we do,” I countered. “What does he have to gain by lying?”
Piet grunted and turned to Marcel. “You and I take the hut from the flanks. These two approach from the front.”
“Wait a moment,” I interjected. “I gave my word to Jean Philippe that he wouldn’t be involved in any actual fighting.”
“Well, I’m telling him different right now, and you too,” Piet snapped. “I don’t care what you told him, he comes along whether he likes it or not.”
Jean Philippe might not have understood the words, but he got the meaning, all right. He turned to me, his eyes wide. “Non, non.”
“Oui, oui,” Marcel mocked. “Or else you get a bayonet in your belly right now, you bastard.”
“Shut up, Marcel,” I snapped. I looked at Jean Philippe. His whole body was shaking. “Come along,” I told him quietly. “Just stay behind me, and I’ll do all the fighting that has to be done.”
Piet had already begun working his way across the field, crawling along on his belly, but Marcel was still watching.
“Remember,” I told him, “no shooting unless it’s absolutely necessary. This is a job for knives only.” Without waiting any longer I got down and began crawling. From the corner of my eye I saw Jean Philippe reluctantly follow.
By the time I got close enough to the hut to make out detail, I knew this was not going to work. I didn’t know what kind of disaster would befall us; I just knew it wouldn’t work. And I wished I had never suggested the idea to Piet in the first place.
Close up, the hut was in no better condition than it had seemed from across the field. I could see a window on the side nearer me, a black square in the paler wall, with the overhanging roof listing slightly to one side. The hut was built on low stilts, as a defence against floods, and I could just make out the glimmer of the stream on the far side. I was considering how to get through the window when I felt a tapping on the sole of my boot.
It was Jean Philippe. “Don’t go in there,” he said.
“Huh?” I asked over my shoulder. “Why not?”
“It’s not good, monsieur. Bad juju. Can’t you feel it?”
I don’t know what I would have replied, but at that very moment there was a burst of shooting, so close that I flinched instinctively. It was only a few shots, but in the night it was shockingly loud. From the sound and the direction, I identified it as Marcel’s Sten carbine. A moment later, Piet joined in from the right, his own gun’s muzzle flashes lighting up the darkness.
I was on my feet, running clumsily towards the hut, looking for a target. Before I’d got half way across, I saw Marcel standing to one side, bending to sweep the space under the hut with another burst from his Sten. He straightened up just as I reached him.
“Got them,” he said with satisfaction.
“What the bleddy hell were you shooting at?” Piet shouted, coming up from the other side.
“They were hiding under the hut,” Marcel said. “Just waiting to attack us from below.”
“Who was?” Piet demanded.
“These,” I told him.
He looked at what I was pointing to, the bodies under the near edge of the hut. There were three, a woman and two children. The woman was still moaning, her arms wrapped around her midsection. The two children were completely silent. They looked to be about nine or ten. One was a boy, the other a little girl who might have been cute but for the bullet hole in the centre of her chest. The bloodstain formed a perfect flower on the cloth of her white dress.
“What the feck.” Piet bent quickly and checked them. “They aren’t even armed.”
“Dieu,” Jean Philippe whispered at my shoulder. He looked at me. “You said that nobody else would get hurt!”
I shook my head helplessly. “I didn’t know this would happen.”
“This is very bad,” Jean Philippe moaned. “It’s worse than I thought it could be.”
The woman moaned and whimpered a few words.
“What’s she saying?” Piet asked.
“She’s asking for her children,” Jean Philippe said. “She’s asking for someone to help, to save them from us.” He looked at us, stricken. “They must have seen us coming and tried to hide underneath.”
The woman moaned again, her voice rising, muttering more words I couldn’t understand.
“The hell with this,” Piet snapped. “Get in there,” he said to Marcel and me, jerking a thumb at the hut. “Go and look.”
The door of the hut was open. I went in first, my gun ready; there was no point in trying to maintain silence now. There wasn’t much inside, apart from the usual furniture; a cupboard filled with small bottles against one wall, and a shield next to it, with a couple of the old broad-bladed native assegais, useless for anything except decoration these days.
Marcel and I searched the hut quickly. There wasn’t anyone inside, which wasn’t surprising.
“The whole thing’s been a fuck-up,” I said, peering under a bed. There was nothing, not even dust. “We’ve missed Ojogor.”
“So what?” Marcel sneered. “We did for his woman and brats. We hit him where it hurts, mec.” With a push, he upset the cupboard. A cascade of little pots smashed on the floor.
“What did you do that for?”
“Just driving the message home.” Marcel kicked at the shield, knocking it off the wall, and stalked to the door. “Coming, or do you like it so much here you’re planning to stay?”
I followed him to the door. Just as I was about to leave, I glanced back inside once. Now, we’d just searched the place and I knew it was empty. But at that moment I had the queerest impression, as though something was watching us; and then, just out of the corner of my eye, I seemed to glimpse a long rippling shadow moving along the floor. But when I turned to look, there was nothing there.
Piet was waiting for us beside Jean Philippe and the woman, who was still moaning. “Well?”
“Nothing,” Marcel shrugged. “Maybe he saw us coming and took off.”
“Right, then we’d better get the hell out of here before the rebels show up.” Piet began to turn away, and then turned back. “Oh,” he said, “I almost forgot.” He raised his submachine gun and brought the stock down on the woman’s head, hard. She shuddered and went limp. “There,” he said, “one bleddy kaffir less.”
“Why did you kill her?” I asked, stunned. “She wasn’t doing anything to you!”
“Why not?” he shrugged. “What’s it to you anyway – you a bleddy kaffir boetie or something?”
“Perhaps he thinks we’re war criminals,” Marcel laughed. “Like the Nazis, you know.”
I didn’t answer. From the looks Marcel and Piet shot at me, I suddenly realised that I – as well as Jean Philippe – might be in actual danger from them. They wouldn’t do anything right away, of course, not as long as we were still on this side of the lines. They needed us to help them fight their way across. But once we got through, we’d have to look out for ourselves.
The village still lay completely dark and silent. We knew it wasn’t deserted, so the people must have all been awake and watching us, staying perfectly still out of fear. But the shooting must have alerted rebels like the patrol we’d brushed against, and we couldn’t tarry. Nor could we simply walk back the way we came – they’d be on the lookout there.
“We’ll go north,” Piet ordered, “as far as we can parallel the stream. After that, we’ll make our way north-west till we hit our own lines.”
Without further ado, we moved off. I noticed that Marcel took up position behind Jean Philippe and me, and the barrel of his Sten seemed to somehow always be pointing at the base of my spine. Yes, we’d have problems with these two. If we got even half a chance, I decided, Jean Philippe and I would break away in the darkness of the forest and make our way across on our own.
But for the moment, there were other things to worry about. The clouds had broken up further, and a wan sliver of moon was showing through. We’d be visible for long distances if we stayed next to the river, silhouetted against the moonlight shining on the water. So we had to give up that plan and enter the shelter of the forest, upon which, of course, movement became much more difficult again.
“Jean Philippe,” I asked, “do you know if any way from here towards our lines?”
The soldier didn’t answer. Ever since Piet had killed the woman, he’d fallen completely silent. He hadn’t even made the slightest noise while I was protesting the killing.
“Shut up there,” Piet snarled over his shoulder. “I’ll decide which way we’ll go now.”
“Jean Philippe?” I prompted nevertheless.
Jean Philippe shook his head slightly, just enough so that I could see it. His shoulders were hunched and his head bent, so that he was looking down at his boots. He looked like a man who was carrying some immense burden on his back.
The forest growth wasn’t quite as thick here, and patchy moonlight filtered through the canopy of leaves above. Apart from the soft tread of our boots on the mulch covering the ground, and the noise of our breathing, the only sound was the whine of mosquitoes and the distant croaking of frogs. So far, we hadn’t heard anything indicating the rebels were looking for us; but for all we knew that might mean they were set up in ambush round the next hillock.
As we went I began to imagine things. Behind each tree, I could see a rebel with a rifle or a shotgun, his finger on the trigger. The very leaves overhead seemed to hide hordes of enemies waiting to drop hand grenades on our heads. So clear were some of these illusions that I might have actually opened fire on them if any of the other three had made the slightest move to indicate that they, too, had noticed them, but they never did.
Also, I began to imagine that we were being followed. At first it was only a dim fancy, but it swiftly grew until it was a conviction so stark that I had to fight the desire to turn round and hose the jungle behind us with bullets. Three or four times I glanced over my shoulder, but all I saw was Marcel plodding along behind, his gun still pointing at my spine.
Just once, though, I seemed to see, in a patch of moonlight, a long and rippling shadow that slid along the ground behind us, like a ripple along the forest floor. But I blinked, and it was gone. It must have just been something else I imagined.
I don’t know how long we walked through the forest; long enough, certainly, for the moon to brighten until the patches of sky we could see appeared to glow with its silver rays. Sweat and water had so saturated my uniform that I could no longer even tell which was which, and my legs moved more and more with a desperate weariness I hadn’t experienced since my days in the Legion.
Apparently it was hard going on Piet too. “Sit down,” he announced. “We’ll take a break.”
We sat. I contrived as far as possible to work my way round so that I was beside Jean Philippe, and facing Marcel and Piet. If they had any idea of eliminating us right now, they’d have to fight two against two. Even though Jean Philippe seemed sunk into himself, he could at least defend himself – I hoped.
The same thought seemed to have occurred to Piet and Marcel, because after a quick look at us they bent their heads together and began murmuring quietly. I nudged my companion.
“Hey, Jean Philippe? Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m all right.” Jean Philippe didn’t look all right, though; he looked terrified. “Eh, monsieur?”
“Did you see something there, behind us? On the trail?”
I turned and looked, half expecting to see the shadow I’d imagined, but there was nothing.
“What are you talking about?”
“Rien,” he said. “Nothing. It was just what that woman said.”
“What did she say?”
Jean Philippe looked quickly at Piet and Marcel, but they were still talking to each other. “She was calling on Ojogor, monsieur, asking him to avenge her and her children.”
“I don’t know.” Jean Philippe rubbed his forehead, which was beaded with so much sweat I could see it even in the near-darkness. “But I tell you, monsieur, Ojogor will not forgive us.”
“Nonsense,” I said briskly. “If it was a band of rebels, now, I might have been worried.”
“Rebels don’t need to do anything, monsieur, if Ojogor puts his mind to it. He’ll do whatever’s necessary, himself.”
“Nonsense,” I repeated. “Shamans don’t have any powers except the credulousness of the people. They –“
As though on cue, a drum began beating in the distance, back in the direction of the village. It only beat a few times, the noise echoing through the forest, and fell silent for a moment, only to start up again.
Jean Philippe started, just as we all did. His mouth opened and closed, but he didn’t make a sound.
“I think we’d better get going,” I said, standing up. “It’s getting a little late to be out.”
Piet and Marcel had also ceased their whispering and were looking back in the direction of the village, tense as whippets. “Yeah, let’s get going,” the South African said. “The kaffirs are likely to start getting heated up.”
If we’d been moving as quickly as we could earlier, we walked at twice the pace now. But in the darkness and the forest, it seemed that we made even less distance than before. The leaf canopy overhead thickened, too, as did the clouds again, so that we could see less and less the further we went. And behind us, sometimes sounding fainter and sometimes closer, the drum kept on, hammering out into the night air.
I knew we were lost. I think we all knew that by then, but Piet wouldn’t admit to it, and if he thought about asking Jean Philippe for help he kept the impulse to himself.
At length we came to a natural clearing, on the other side of which there was a small hill, shaped almost exactly like a breast. From the top of it, we would be able to see a little way over the forest, and hopefully orient ourselves again. Without exchanging a word, we trudged across the clearing and began to climb up the sparsely wooded slope. It was so steep that we had to go up on all fours.
I was halfway up the climb when the sensation of being followed came back again, so strongly that I stopped where I was and turned my head to look back over the clearing. The moon was in the act of slipping behind a sheet of cloud, and in the fleeting last light I glimpsed something. Then the darkness fell, almost complete, and I couldn’t see any more.
“Piet,” I said, quite conversationally.
“Yeah,” he replied, from somewhere above and ahead.
“There’s someone coming across the clearing behind us. Two people.”
“Huh? I can’t see anything, it’s too bleddy dark. You’re sure?”
“Perfectly. I saw them just before the moon went in. They’re armed too. Assegais.”
“Assegais, yeah? We’ll show the bleddy kaffirs.” I could hear his footsteps scrambling upwards. “Let’s get to the top while we can.”
But that was easier said than done. In the dark, without being able to see how far we still had to get to reach the top, the climb seemed endless. Twice or thrice the handholds I used gave way, and I slid back a couple of metres before managing to stop myself. Once, I could have fallen a long way, but for Jean Philippe grabbing hold of my arm as I went sliding past.
“Careful, monsieur,” he said.
“Merci beaucoup,” I told him.
“No need to thank me, monsieur. The time for thanks is past.”
I didn’t know what he meant and I didn’t have the time to ask. Just then we reached a flattened ridge on the side of the hillock. Piet and Marcel were already there, backs to the slope, facing down towards the clearing.
“Which way were they coming from?” Piet asked.
“Right along our tracks,” I replied. “I only saw them for a moment, but it was enough.” Absently, from a corner of my mind, I noted that the drum had fallen silent.
“Assegais,” Marcel snorted. “Just what the damned idiots think will work against submachine guns.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was wondering whether to tell them what else I’d seen – but it was just a glimpse, in poor light, and I was probably mistaken anyway. “But it’s dark and if they get within stabbing range –“
The words were hardly out of my mouth when I heard a strange noise. I can’t really describe it any better than a kind of scrabbling. Think of the noise your shoes make when you’re running on gravel, but much softer. Instinctively, I raised my submachine gun, without anything to aim at.
And at that very moment the moon came out.
It came out for only a moment, but that moment was long enough. I saw the moonlight gleam on upraised assegais, and a little more. My finger was on the trigger, but it didn’t move; what I saw at that moment kept it frozen in place. Then the moon went back in, and Piet’s and Marcel’s submachine guns exploded in tandem, their muzzle flashes lighting up the descending blades.
The next moment, Jean Philippe had grabbed me by the collar and was dragging me down the hillside. I remember little about that descent; the only thing I recall clearly is the rattle of the Sten carbines, and, as they fell silent, the screaming.
Piet and Marcel were still screaming when we reached the trees. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that.
“There’s little more to tell,” Rössler said, thoughtfully eyeing the dregs of his coffee. “Sometime during the night Jean Philippe managed to lead us across the lines and back to our side. We probably would have faced awkward questions about Piet and Marcel if we’d ever got back to the commando, but we never did.
“That very evening, the rebels attacked all along the front. The government soldiers didn’t even attempt to fight. Some of them defected to the rebels, and the rest, bar a few brave exceptions, threw down their guns and ran away. Jean Philippe and I hung together for a while, and then I joined up with some other mercenaries who were trying to fight our way out. Two days after General Gondar’s rebel units took Robertville, we managed to make our way to the western border and safety.”
He fell silent, and we looked at each other.
“It’s a good tale,” I said at last. “But what does it have to do with zombies?”
Rössler didn’t say anything for a while, and I could see him trying to decide what to tell me. “I did tell you that there was something else that I saw when I looked back from the hillside,” he said at last. “Something I decided not to tell Piet and Marcel.”
“I saw those two figures, as I told you – figures carrying assegais, like I’d seen in Ojogor’s hut. But around their legs, twining around them as if carrying them forward, was a sliding strip of shadow, like a ripple moving along the ground. I saw it clearly, in the light of the moon – and there was nothing to throw that shadow.”
“Some high-altitude cloud, perhaps?” I suggested.
Rössler shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. But then the moon came out again, and I saw the two attackers, right before us. Somehow they’d come up the hill so fast and silently that the only warning we’d had was the scrabbling noise of their feet on the ground just before their attack.”
“And that’s when the moon came out, and you didn’t fire,” I said.
He smiled mirthlessly. “You paid attention. My finger was on the trigger, as I’d said – my gun was pointing right at the nearer of the two – but I, as I said, didn’t fire. There were two reasons. The first was that the attacker was a child.”
“A child?” I repeated.
“Yes, a girl. Those were the days before child soldiers became two a penny in African civil wars, but that wasn’t the reason why my finger froze on the trigger. It was what she was wearing.”
I looked at him. He looked into his coffee and up at me again.
“It was a white dress, with a bullet hole in the chest, with blood spread out around it like the petals of a flower...”
It was late in the evening when I left Rössler. “I suppose you could tell the story, if you want,” he said at the door. “Who would believe you, after all?”
“Does it matter if anyone does?” I asked.
He grinned drily. “You understand that everything I told you could be the product of a stressed out mind. I could simply have imagined the shadow, the dress, and the blood. Isn’t that so?”
“Of course,” I said. “But –“
“But, what happened to Piet and Marcel? And how could assegais win over submachine guns? That’s a question that still needs an answer.”
“Let me ask you,” I replied, “what you think happened.”
He looked at me for a long time, all trace of humour gone from his face. “Young man,” he said at last, “that is something I hope I never have to find out.”
Walking down the street to where I parked my car, I found myself shivering, though the night was warm. As I fished the key from my pocket, I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye. For just an instant, it seemed as though a long shadow was slipping down the street, like a ripple along the surface of the earth.
It must have been my imagination, I told myself. Of course it was.
But I drove as fast as I could away from there, and all the way back I didn’t look in the rear view mirror, not even once.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014