Hole – The first three chapters



He forced his eyes open, saw the wall of the pit stretching up above him, its dark edge a faint line against the black night sky. An Arctic wind sighed through the tips of the evergreens, the needles whispering a message he could not understand. He felt a peace descend upon him, let himself slide into the sound. What had the Colonel called it? A Japanese word. What was it? Matzukaze. Wind in the pines. A a feeling of exquisite solitude and melancholy. He got it now. Matzukaze. He felt his eyes begin to slide shut, welcoming that final warm embrace.

He shook his head, forced his eyes open. No, not yet. Fuck Matzukaze. 

His eyes traced the dull surface of the wall to its top. Twelve feet, fifteen, hard to see in this light. The slight effort of tilting his head up to the sky sent wracking waves of pain down his back. He let his chin drop, closed his eyes again. In the best of shape, these walls would be impossible to climb. And he was far from being in the best of shape. He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, letting the icy air awaken his cells, coax the drugs from his veins. Think.

He forced his eyes upward again, focused on the stars beyond the tips of the pines. Breathe. Think. The trees whispered to him. He concentrated, forced the Colonel’s word away, substituted another. Fukushu. Vengeance.

He let the glow of rage build just enough to warm his mind, then tamped it down. There would be time for that later perhaps, what he needed now was the other. He sucked in another breath, felt it cut cold across a broken tooth. He blinked twice, three times, tongued the edge of the cracked enamel. Fuck. The wind through the trees again, a siren song of resignation. No. See the difference between the probable and the possible. He forced his eyes upward. 

He let his head rest back against the frozen wall, squinted up to see a solitary bird high in the sky, dark against the moon. He breathed in, let the air send another icy spike through his broken tooth, tried to swallow. His mouth too dry, his throat swollen. Think. Analyze the dangers, the obstacles, execute the solution. He tried to swallow again. An aching thirst remained. But thirst could be endured; dehydration, starvation, far out on the horizon. Without a solution, he would never live long enough to see either materialize. Time would do him in. The pressure of the clock, the mother of all mistakes.

He shut his eyes. Think. Then act. In that order. Remember your training, use the pain. He shut his eyes, cataloged the damage, its origins, the things he could remember that had been done to him. 

He tried again to swallow, again he failed. Damage to the trachea, the drugs, dehydration, the list of possible causes was long. His breathing was shallow and strained. He felt faint. Ditto. Accept the facts. Embrace them. Learn from them. He was still breathing, that was a start. 

OK, work the problem. Deal with immediate concerns. He shut his eyes, took a few slow, deep breaths, felt the places that throbbed, the pulsing aches, the stabs of burning pain. Finger first. He slitted his eyes open, looked down. Even in the darkness the sight made him whistle out a long breath. Digits almost incapacitated, the skin around his knuckles taut, split, showing glimpses of bone beneath. Where his nails had been, now raw flesh, exposed meat, oozing blood and a clear viscous fluid. He tried to flex his hands. They bent slowly, sending bolts of pain up his forearms. Soon they would be nothing more than splayed chunks of clay, blackened cigars at their ends, unable to bend or stretch, useless. First step would be keeping the fingers mobile just a bit longer. 

He took a shallow breath, slid himself up slowly onto one arm, then pushed up to a sitting position, leaning back against the smooth wall of the pit. He eased his hands up into his lap, groaning slightly, and began to ply the fingers gingerly, spreading them as widely as he could. He grimaced, feeling pain in his jaw, in the hole where his molar had been, a matching thunderbolt zipping down from the cracked incisor. Use it. He spread his fingers out, counted to three, then let them relax. Then again. Stretching, relaxing, and repeating. Ten minutes of soft moaning, fingers flexing, curling laboriously into fists, relaxing, as he assessed his situation. 

He forced his eyes wide, scanned the pit around him. The dirt floor beneath him was smooth and packed, frozen hard as stone. But it was dirt, not stone, and that was at least something. He suppressed the slight shivers that ran through his legs and ignored the temptation to move. Cold as it was, he knew the dirt underneath his naked skin was at least a degree or two warmer than anywhere else in the pit. For now he would hold his position. 

Again he tried to swallow. His mouth was dry, thick with the copper taste of blood. Small chips of what felt like cold, rusted pennies stuck against his tongue and gums. Think. First things first. He pursed his lips and sucked hard, pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, forcing traces of saliva from his cheeks and blood from his extracted tooth. He tried to force the muscles in his mouth and throat to obey. A thready ball of blood and phlegm stuck at the back of his epiglottis and bits of broken tooth scratched his larynx. He sucked and strained, sucked and strained, feeling the blood ooze from his gums warm and salty. A thin flow of saliva began to trickle across his tongue. He swallowed. Then again. Check.  

He took a shallow breath, braced himself, then lifted his hands slowly, blinking against the responding pain from his body, the circle of black that threatened to shut his eyes. He placed one finger against the side of his nose, and blew gently. He did the other nostril in the same fashion, clearing the dried and clotted blood, but careful not to open the veins again. He felt the warm splat of the small clots as they hit his skin and could feel how quickly they began to thicken in the cold, pulling against the hairs of his thighs. He leaned back against the hard wall of the pit, panting with the effort of even these small actions. He needed more air. Fuel for the pump.

OK. So, breathe. 

He pursed his lips as if to whistle and sucked in sharply. The cold, night air across his broken teeth, sending an electric current searing through his core, momentarily clearing his head. A tear rolled down one cheek. He tried a first breath through his nostrils, pulling deep, filling his lungs, his entire body quivering with the effort. Air hit the bottom of his chest like a knife, a sharp stab to his broken ribs. He fought to stay sitting upright, to not double over in pain. Easy now. Exhale and repeat. He pulled in air slowly, one long reverse sigh after another, gradually working his way up to regular breaths, letting the icy oxygen clear the fog from his brain. 

Think. Draw the map. Connect the dots. Don’t rush. Analyze. He shivered, cut his eyes up at the dark sky above. He was cold. Understandable. Ten, twenty degrees below freezing. It would get colder before sunrise. The woozy hangover feeling, the dry mouth, the nausea that bubbled up warm and acid in his throat – what wasn’t caused by pain could be attributed to whatever was in the drug cocktail the Colonel had given him. He shut his eyes. Some variation on the Russian SP-117 perhaps. Helpful with prying the truth from unwilling subjects, and clouded memory and decision-making processes for days. Smart. He tried to force himself upright and failed. Analyze. He shut his eyes, got fragments of memories of the beating, the torture that followed. No doubt the pain that pulsed through his body could be neatly traced to blows or the events following, but his memory was incomplete. The pain, however, was not. He breathed in sharply again, his eyes fluttering open, letting the pain clear his mind. Embrace it, don’t fight it. He opened his eyes as wide as they would go. Would have to keep them from swelling shut.

Going down the list of what he remembered. Fingernails, the blows to his body, his face. Check, check. One by one he flexed the muscles in his limbs and extremities, measuring their responsiveness, calculating their ability. When he was done, he leaned back and breathed deeply. Not as bad as it could be. Ribs on both sides broken, but not puncturing the lungs. Left cheek bone broken, a couple of teeth cracked, two rear molars gone. Nose also broken, but broken straight, not obstructing his air flow. That was a good thing. He would need air. Air was oxygen and oxygen was fuel. The knife wounds to his arms, thighs, and calves were deep, but their cuts were clean and had not severed any tendons or – as evident by his mere conscious presence – any arteries. The flow of blood from his various wounds was slowed by the cold. Also a blessing. He would need blood. Oxygen to blood to muscles. A logistical chain. Analyze.

The soles of his feet were swollen and blood bruised from the beatings, but the skin was miraculously intact. He lifted his hands, let his fingers gently catalog. An egg-shaped lump on his skull, his left eye swollen, would be shut by morning, the tendons in his knees and shoulders probably torn – painful, and debilitating over time, but not a major obstacle just yet. He groaned as his fingers played lightly over his genitals, burned and swollen, a combination of electric wire and blow torch, but both tools had self-cauterized the wounds they caused, so again; blessings in disguise. He indulged himself a small, painful smile. He wouldn’t be needing his genitals for a while. All in all, he thought, it could be worse. Much worse. And even a little bit worse would be synonymous with impossible. His head began to cloud again, warm and pleasant. Matzukaze. Impossible might not be so bad. OK, not better, but certainly easier. Just sleep and then, and then nothing. He shook his head forcefully, was rewarded with fiery daggers behind his eyes, in his temples. He took another deep breath, the cold shooting through his teeth, his sinuses, into his ribs, clearing the fog. Fuck Matzukaze. Another breath. Think, then act.

Back to the fingers. He would need those first. And if he didn’t do something soon, they would be the first to let him down. He could feel them, alien entities fighting his efforts, flesh stiffening and throbbing. The fingers would be a problem. Well, fuck you, fingers. No one is quitting now. Everyone has to pull their weight. He smiled again in the darkness, broader, the movement splitting a nascent scab on his lip. Could be worse. His lips settled. What was he forgetting? A shiver reminded him. The cold.

His situation, bad as it was, was temporary. He wouldn’t have more than a day, two at most. None of his injuries would be immediately fatal on their own, but with the steady aid of the cold  in time they would do him in. And if for some miraculous reason if the cold didn’t take him, then every hour that passed would allow bacteria and germs to invade his wounded flesh. A day, two at most. Time was working against him. He felt sleep beckon, wanted to close his eyes. But if he slept, during the night, his white blood cells would multiply, randomly attacking the very vessel they were trying to save. His fever would rise and pus would begin to gather beneath the surface of his skin. Where his bones were broken, the surrounding tissue would swell, and the shock that was keeping him relatively pain free now would subside, freeing his nerves to accept the full message of agony broadcast by his brain. By first light, his arms would have stiffened into unbendable sticks, his feet turned to hardened clay, and the muscles of his sides and abdomen would be unusable, a twisted, stabbing, concrete fabric. And all through the night, the blood seeping from his body, the Nordic air, would make his muscles even stiffer, his thoughts even slower, and lure him into the arms of the death angel of sleep. Matzukaze. Think. 

He shut his eyes, tilted his head back against the wall behind him and stared up at the blackness. Deep velvet, a scattering of small stars. Shades of ebony and deep gray, no edges, no contrast. No help. He squeezed his lids shut as tightly as he could manage, then pressed his palms against them hard for a count of ten. When he opened his eyes again, his pupils were slightly more dilated. Light flickered across his retina. He repeated the process a few times, forcing blood into the vessels of his cornea, tricking his pupils to enlarge. 

Better. The pit still only dimly illuminated, but with edges now, soft differences between shapes. Vague contours of a road map for his brain to fill in. A pale hint of faint silver light, the moon, seeping through the blackness of the trees. A slight breeze lifted the needles of the tall pines, the forest once again whispering, but now with no message. A nearby twig snapped dryly. He held his breath, waiting for the sound to repeat, and when a half minute of silence had passed, he resumed his breathing.

He twisted his head, peering into the gloom, alternating between squints and wide-eyed staring, mapping his surroundings. He put the pit at approximately twelve feet square, about fifteen feet deep. The sides were smooth, solid slabs of thin cement, pressed tight against the hard packed dirt and glowing dully with ice. 

He shifted to one side, rose on elbows and knees to a squat, then using the wall as a brace, levered himself inch by groaning inch, to his feet. Once standing, he leaned against the wall, his breath in short and painful gasps. He began to reconsider his initial analysis – perhaps a bone had punctured a lung after all. Sweat streamed down his naked body, his thighs quivered. He sucked one long, deep breath through his broken teeth, then another, and turned to face the wall. 

With his arms stretched out in front of him, he made his way along the smooth surface, searching for a crevice, a gap, purchase of some kind. He let his palms slide along the wall in small circles, careful to keep the tips of his fingers raised, only lightly touching the surface. Twice his footing slipped and he stubbed the tip of a finger against the icy concrete and twice he was forced to stop for several minutes, fighting the blackness that threatened to envelop his vision. A deep throbbing where his nails had been, his heart in every finger, beating time. He felt his way along the wall, his fingertips finding small irregularities, lumps, slight imperfections in the surface, but even the most optimistic interpretation could not translate these scratches into footholds or grips. When his fingertips at last bumped – with a blinding flash of pain – into the corner, he doubled back, covering another horizontal stretch of the wall. Back and forth he went, bending and stretching, covering a six inch stripe with each pass, until he had explored every reachable surface of the wall. He allowed himself a full sixty seconds to catch his breath, counting each second methodically in his head, and then turned to the next wall. 

A full hour later, his body shaking, his skin wet and cold with sweat, he had surveyed every inch of the pit’s walls. A perfect combination of form and function. Concisely suited to its task and without flaw. Dug deep, sprayed with water, and allowed to freeze, then lined with thin, unbroken concrete slabs to ensure that no escape was possible. Then sprayed again, so that smooth, black ice covered the even harder surfaces underneath. The beauty and simplicity of its design appealed to him in some way. Another lesson he had learned: never let your hate for an enemy remove your respect for their abilities.

He blinked slowly and deliberately, took a few short, careful breaths, then leaned back against the smooth cement of the wall and slid slowly down to his haunches. Something pulled painfully in his left thigh; not a break, but he would need to be careful. Cautiously extending his feet in front of him and supporting his weight on his buttocks and palms, he began crab walking the dirt floor of the pit, inch by inch, feeling for anything – a branch, a stone, a place to dig – anything that would allow him some foundation upon which to form a plan, no matter how hopeless. It took him another hour to search the floor, covering every inch twice, and when he was through he collapsed with his back against the wall, precisely where he had begun. 

Two hours of effort, of energy, gone. And the horizon none the brighter. Respect. He could not help but admire the workmanship, the professionalism of the pit. They could safely leave him here, far out of hearing distance of any human settlement, of any human at all, knowing that he would live long enough for them to return if need be, but not much more. This small detail would buy them the time needed to confirm whatever he had told them. It would allow them to come back and question him further if they needed. And if they did not, well, there would be no need to come back to finish him off. Time would take care of that. 

He looked up to the night sky. All things play their parts, some doing nothing, but, to paraphrase the Dharmic saying, doing everything at the same time. The action that would be committed against him would be that of no action. Order, and for him a final one, would prevail. His limbs would stiffen and eventually either enough heat or blood would leave his body to kill him. And if not that, then something else – infection, fever, rats; something.

Something would take him in time. Or from time, as the case may be. He would never leave this pit. Simple, effective, old school. The perfect hole. Wide enough to keep him from touching both sides at once, deep enough to contain him effectively. Not deep enough, however, to limit his view of the night sky above and the softly moving trees, their rustling needles a taunt, a siren’s song that he was unable to answer. 

He smiled. The Colonel, in his way, a poet. When the long Scandinavian night finally allowed its brief pink glow of day, it would find him on the cusp, would bring muddled glimpses of the tall pines and firs as they towered and swayed above him. They would be the last thing he would see. At first light he would be able to hear the wind whisper through the branches, hear the creak of the timber, the small sounds of life emerging in the forest. The last things he would hear. The world going on, life continuing. Even as his own ebbed minutely away. Poetic. The hole had been dug deep. But not deep enough to keep him from viewing the world he would be leaving.

His soft smile dropped, falling into a faint frown. Twisting words in his head. Never let your respect for a thing make you forget the source of your hatred. He shoved himself to his knees, shut his eyes, listened to the forest in the night. Blood dripped slowly from his nose to the frozen earth below. He took a long, deep breath.

Fuck Matzukaze.

Think, then act.


Jonathon Davenport-Corning stepped out of the town car and looked up expecting an angel. A smile spread across his face. He was not disappointed. His wife Laurel standing in the second-floor window of the three-story brownstone, waving down at him through the glass. Her golden tresses were tied back in a ponytail and she shook her head demonstratively, slinging the ponytail back and forth. A private joke about her being happy to see him. 

“If I had a tail, I’d wag it,” she would say, “but this will have to do.”

He waved back with both hands, the gold band on his finger catching the afternoon sun as it sank down at the end of 22nd street. Laurel waved back, blew him multiple kisses. His brownstone. His wife. Wasn’t used to the possessive form in relation to either yet. Marriage and house, both only two months in. Laurel, with her lean, patrician beauty, her casual poise and willowy optimism, the result of centuries of breeding. Old money. 

Jonathon had married up. In every way. And he knew it. And while he had always been considered handsome in a rakish, boyish way, Laurel not the only one claiming that he resembled a young Paul Newman, Jonathon knew the difference between shrimp and lobster, the difference between a good quarter horse and a prize Arabian. And he knew where on the relative scale he fell. Any similarity to the movie star beyond his unruly auburn curls and puggish features could be attributed to practiced charm and attitude. Laurel’s beauty, on the other hand, was timeless, effortless, as much an inheritance as the trust funds and family enclave in the Hamptons. He returned the exaggerated kisses up at the window, saw the amused smile of the driver beside him. Jonathon shrugged and grinned. 

“What can I say? Still newlyweds.”

The driver gave a low whistle, shook his head softly. “A beautiful bride. Lucky man.”

Jonathon ignored the slight breach of etiquette. Laurel was truly a prize. And he had gotten her cheap. His family’s pedigree not as polished as hers, his family’s money not as old. His family had made its money here, in the last century, not brought it with them across the water four hundred years ago. By most measures, Jonathon’s family had done well, from humble beginnings to one of the wealthiest families on the east coast in the space of a generation. His grandfather, the American dream embodied. A no frills, sharp eyed son of a Scottish immigrant, he had parlayed his father’s watch repair shop into thriving tool and die operation, and that into a chain of a profitable manufacturing plants, investing the profits in banking and finance. Under Jonathon’s father’s watch, however, the family’s newly acquired wealth had receded as certainly as the tides that had carried the family to these shores just two generations earlier. Immense wealth required careful management, prudence, nurturing. His father had possessed none of those skills. As a result, Jonathon was what was known in certain circles as the working rich; possessing wealth, but not the kind that generated more of the same through its simple existence, never attaining the revered reverse osmosis of old money. And so, Jonathon had a job, a career. Regaining his grandfather’s legacy would require both time and work. But in addition to the dimpled chin and stubborn jaw, other qualities that his grandfather had possessed, and that had skipped a crucial generation, had also landed in him. From Wharton to Wall Street, a brief stint as a partner in a Boston hedge fund, and now the CEO of Mars Capital, a small, but rapidly growing investment firm. Jonathon had his eyes on the future, and was willing to put in the work to get there. A quality that Laurel had seen in him from the first.

Naturally, Laurel had other suitors, circling like sharks in the moneyed waters of their caste, suitors that had gone to the same prep schools, belonged to the same clubs, had the same multi-level trusts. 

“All of those boys,” she had said, her tone on the last word telling him that she did not include him in that category, “all of those boys reached the peak of their arc a long time ago. Your story…” She had kissed his hand, looked him deeply in the eyes, corrected herself, “…our story, is just beginning.” Laurel had had her pick. And she had picked him. Lucky man indeed. 

He smiled up at Laurel in the window, blew another, sincere kiss. His wife, waiting for him in his brownstone. The brownstone, unlike his bride, had not been cheaply acquired. This area of Chelsea not nearly as posh as other areas his young wife would have preferred – and deserved, he thought guiltily – but the building, after renovation, had still run northward of three million. Two four story structures combined into one dwelling, gutted, rebuilt from the ground up. No expense spared. She had expensive tastes, his wife. No matter, he thought. He was just out of the starting blocks, his race – their race –  just begun. The money would come.

His phone buzzed in the pocket of his camel hair overcoat. He glanced down at the antique Rolex Submariner on his wrist, a gift from his grandfather, like the old man’s genetic traits, skipping a generation, never gracing his father’s arm. “Learn to understand time’s intentions,” the old man had said when presenting him with the watch, “Time can be your enemy, but also your friend.” Just at the moment, Jonathon thought, it was the former. The phone buzzed again.

He fished it out, recognized the number on the screen. The phone was new, an iPhone, a gift from Laurel, and he fumbled with the security screen, entered the wrong password. He missed his old flip phone. He missed the call. He turned to the town car, gestured for the driver to wait, navigated the touch screen slowly, returned the call.

“Sorry,” he said when the call was answered, “new phone. Don’t even know how to answer the damn thing.”

A raucous laugh, heavily accented Danish words coming from the other end. “Fuck these new clever phones, right?”

“Smart phones,” Jonathon replied, “they call them smart phones.”

“Well,” laughed the Dane, “not so fucking smart if they make answering a call harder, yeah?”

Jonathon returned the laugh. “Progress, Thomas, progress. We are all slaves to technology it seems.”

“And that,” replied Thomas, “is a wonderful introduction to this conversation.” He did not so much speak the words as he gargled them out, the guttural Danish imprinting even foreign vowels with its mumbling cadence.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Thomas?”

“Sorry? What?”

“What can I do for you?”

“More the other way around, I think.” 

Jonathon humored him. He found the Dane’s throaty accent charming in a way. “Alright, so what can you do for me on this fine evening?”

“Are you at your computer?” Thomas’s voice growing serious.

Jonathon glanced up at the window. Laurel, standing hands on hips, an exaggerated, playful frown on her beautiful face. “No, I just got home. It’s seven in the evening here.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” replied Thomas. “Well, get to the office and call me back.”

“I beg your pardon?” Jonathon looked up at Laurel, shrugged, gestured to the phone.

“Get to the office and call me back,” said Thomas. Jonathon started to speak, but the Dane cut him off. “It’s important, Yonathon,” he said, and the line went dead.

Jonathon stared at the phone, gave a heavy sigh, mouthed the word ‘sorry’ up at the window, then got back in the town car without waiting to register Laurel’s response. He directed the driver uptown.

The Dane, Thomas Anderson, was a brash and uncouth sort, but clever and immensely useful. Jonathon found his direct, no filter, no apologies, approach to life a refreshing change from the patrician tones of the Ivy Leaguers and trust-fund brats that populated the investment world. Sitting in the back of the town car, feeling irritation rise at the brusque intrusion, at the repercussions from Laurel to follow, he reminded himself of two things: one, that if Thomas said something was urgent or important, it usually was, and two, that Thomas drew no distinction between work and private lives, both being one and the same for him. One of many reasons Jonathon had advised his firm to invest in the Dane’s company.

A born hustler, at an age when even the most entrepreneurial child was still sitting beside a lemonade stand selling their parent’s repackaged raw materials, at twelve, Thomas was hawking bootleg tee-shirts outside of Copenhagen rock concerts. By the age of fifteen he had found a Turkish printer of questionable ethics in the Norrebro section of the city that would print the shirts for cheap, from designs that Thomas himself drew up, cutting out the middlemen and increasing his profits. Profits which he saved, then invested in his own printing gear, another middleman gone. He smoothed the waters with the displaced Turks by hiring a few dozen of the printer’s younger relatives to hawk the tee shirts, giving them a healthy commission on each one sold. The young Turkish youths were natural salesmen, as well as being quick on their feet, scooping up their inventory and dashing off into the crowd at the first sign of Danish police. From time to time, however, a few got picked up, and young Thomas developed long lasting relationships with a slew of Danish beat cops, his ruddy complexion and white blond hair dampening any racist attitudes, his quick greasing of palms doing the rest, ensuring that his young Turkish sales reps could work uninterrupted. And all the while, he saved, invested. 

By his late teens, he had moved into the burgeoning market for knock off cell phones, his gear carefully sourced and of relatively high quality, employing even more of the Turkish printer’s extended family to push the wares at local markets, on makeshift sidewalk stands along Strogade. Hawking scrim scram to riff raff, as he put it, first on sidewalks and in open-air markets, then bypassing brick and mortar stores and making the move to television, mimicking the success of American late-night sellers of quirky inventions, useless gadgets, knives of incredible sharpness, never ending light bulbs. He found the medium ideal for selling his knock off cell phones, along with a range of Chinese produced accessories, riding the first wave of the mobile revolution, employing busty beauties in revealing clothes to display his products during the cheap after midnight airtime. Derided as a joke by most, his pornographic sales approach was, however, effective, and the money rolled in. By the time he was twenty-one, he had made his first million. 

Perhaps heady from his success, he missed the natural move from low-rent late-night commercials to the Danish version of the QVC network, and then to the Internet, but that was fine. Thomas had found another row to hoe.

When he made his first million, he had taken up target shooting, a boyhood dream fulfilled. The people he met on the shooting ranges, on the foreign trips to hunt more exciting game than that on offer in Denmark, combined with his Norrgade connections, gave him a network of rough and unsavory characters – a combination of Turkish heavies, off-duty cops, and local MC gang members, fleshed out with out of work soldiers from Danish UN forces, as well as the tide of Serbs fleeing the war or escaping justice for what they had done during it. Thomas embraced his new social circle, and quickly came to see the unexploited resource that these people represented. A resource which he quickly packaged and exploited to its fullest. 

By the time he hit twenty-six, Shining Spear, a security firm employing all of the misfits he had gathered to him, was handling security for the very concerts and events where he previously sold his wares. That business grew as well, ripples on the pond, from rock concerts to contracts with local businesses and night clubs, then to political events and other more respectable gatherings. Thomas’s firm was soon the go-to source for no nonsense, skilled security throughout the tiny nation. Shining Spear purchased a Swedish competitor, then a German one, and by the time Thomas was thirty, the company was providing advanced security services to events throughout northern Europe. 

Thomas pressed on. When global terrorist organizations grew, spilled beyond their borders, and began threatening not just nations, but corporations, Thomas paid attention. And when he read that there were more than 40,000 kidnappings around the world each year, one every thirteen minutes on average, he saw the figures as a clear business opportunity. Shining Spear’s corporate security division was born. By the time Thomas turned thirty-five, the company was handling both security and military contracting for some forty global corporations and employed over ten thousand people. Never a man to rest on his laurels, Thomas made up for his previous Internet miss by moving into the quickly expanding IT industry, first to support his core operations, then hiring programmers in India and Russia, building low cost processing farms to meet the burgeoning demand for e-commerce solutions, dating apps, and marketing software. Thomas understood very little about the technology involved, but he had a sixth sense for profit and where to find it. 

Silver Spear’s rapid expansion had made a sizable – and enticing – blip on Jonathon’s radar. After some rather confrontational negotiations, both with his own board and Thomas himself, Mars Capital had acquired a 51% stake in Thomas’ operations. Jonathon had assured the Dane that in almost all instances, operational decisions would still be Thomas’ purview, and that with the funding that Jonathon’s firm could provide, their prospects were bright enough to light even the darkest Copenhagen night. Jonathon was only a proxy owner, the investors in his firm owning far more of the Dane’s company than he did. But at the end of the day, Jonathon signed the checks. Proxy power, he thought, is still power, if managed correctly.

In the six years since, Jonathon had been true to his word and for the most part let the Dane run the show, he and the board members he had appointed stepping in mostly to provide corporate guidance, strategic expertise, and political muscle. Thomas’ company had been quickly renamed, avoiding the unfortunate double S abbreviation and providing a corporate structure more suitable to global expansion. And KTK Services came into being, its initials taken from the Greek Kataktóntas ton Kósmo, meaning conquering the world.

And the ever-energetic Thomas, with the invigorating flow of capital behind him, propelling him forward, had navigated the new waters with ease. KTK had grown rapidly, and was now the tenth largest military service contractor in the world. KTK was earning, expanding, set to be the jewel in Jonathon’s financial crown if all went according to schedule. And so far, it had. Thomas always delivered, on time and under budget. That fact alone was worth dealing with his unpolished manners and gargled accent many times over. Thomas’ latest notion was to establish a private air force, perhaps a navy even, to complement the growing army at his command. 

“In the future, Yonathon,” he had said, the ‘Yonathon’ sounding like it was uttered through a mouthful of oatmeal, “countries will outsource everything. Because it is clever, it makes sense. Cheaper, better, more flexible. And,” he laughed, “it’s going to make us richer than we ever dreamed, my friend.”

Jonathon had smiled, ruled nothing out. Thomas loved guns, loved women, loved fast cars, but more importantly, he loved doing things that were supposedly impossible. And more than all he loved money and had an uncanny ability to sniff out the potential nooks and crannies where the potential to make it lay hidden. KTK had already expanded past the traditional security service and mercenaries that were the bread-and-butter of such companies, and was now able to provide everything from logistical solutions to a range of engineering and geo-mapping expertise. So a private air force? Why the hell not? He was more than happy to follow wherever Thomas’s profit prescience might lead. Just last year, Jonathon had used his, or more accurately, Laurel’s family’s, connections to help KTK win a very lucrative contract with the US Government, doing highly technical processing of geological scans of northern Iraq and Afghanistan, a task far outside KTK’s core business. 

“Are you sure?” he had asked the Dane before pulling any of the strings that needed to be pulled. “Better not to get it than to fail, yes?”

Thomas had merely laughed, his entrepreneurial DNA seeing an opportunity in every obstacle. “Yonathon, you write the checks, I will get it done. Teamwork, yeah?” The Dane had grinned, a twinkle in his blue eyes. “Would be even more profitable if we had our own planes.”

“One step at a time, Thomas,” Jonathon had replied.

“Where the hell is the fun in that?” the Dane laughed, “Why walk when you can run?”

Now, the evening advancing at a rate that would please the Dane, Jonathon watched the streets of mid-town Manhattan pass by outside the tinted window of the town car. He smiled to himself. Planes. Fucking Thomas. He tapped his fingers lightly against his chin. Then again, a private air-force wasn’t that far from a private army, which was in principle what KTK provided. Just a matter of scale. Maybe the Dane was right. Most men, he thought, like to distance themselves from unpleasantries. Politicians especially. As such, the Dane’s vision of a privatized military future was not likely wrong. Thomas was incorrect about one thing, however. KTK would never make Jonathon richer than he had dreamt. Jonathon’s dreams apparently much grander in scale than the Dane’s. He smiled again. Some reach for the brass ring, others want to own the fair. Richer than he had ever dreamt? Hardly. But KTK would most certainly take him a good ways down the road. And the various subsidiaries spinning off from the parent company, 70 or 80 percent held by his firm, would take him even further. So if the Dane wanted to build an air force, a navy, hell even a space program, then give him the ball and let him run with it. The town car glided to a stop in front of a sleek glass and steel office building. Mars Equity in large brass letters above the door. 

“If you don’t mind, just wait here,” Jonathon said to the driver. “Not sure how long this will take. Sorry to be such a bother on a Friday evening.”

“No bother sir,” replied the driver, his eyes in the rear view showing that he, like Jonathon, knew that the politeness with which the request was phrased was just that, politeness, nothing else.

But, thought Jonathon as he exited the car, without politeness, without, as his grandfather had phrased it, the regulated interaction between the castes, where would they be? And the same with the Dane. He had his role, Jonathon had his. Boundaries, however, must be maintained, and the perfunctory summons that Thomas had given him was pushing those boundaries. No matter, he thought, as he entered the building, if Thomas felt it necessary for him to head back to the office, if he felt his news warranted a break in protocol, then so be it. Jonathon glanced down at his grandfather’s watch. It would be worth it. It better be. Laurel was going to kill him for missing dinner.

He entered his office, removed his overcoat and settled in behind his desk. When his computer screen had blinked on, and he had poured himself a much needed whiskey, he dialed Thomas’ number.

“Yonathon,” answered the Dane, “finally.”

“Thomas,” Jonathon replied, “if you realized the beauty of the woman waiting for me, and the level of her irritation at me abandoning our dinner plans, you would understand the value that I place upon our friendship. Now what’s up?”

Jonathon expected some form of bawdy joke in response, but none came. Thomas got straight to the point. “It’s the geo survey project.” 

Jonathon felt a trickle of uneasiness down his spine. The contract, to review a previous geological scan of Afghanistan mineral deposits using new technologies, was the company’s first for the US Department of Defense, and represented new waters, new skill sets, new technologies. All highly lucrative if done correctly, but if not? A lot of strings had been pulled to get this contract. If the Dane screws this up, Jonathon thought, a large number of very valuable bridges will be burned in the process. The image of Laurel in the window flitted before his eyes. “The Afghanistan contract,” he said. “Are there problems?” He closed his eyes, dreading the response.

“Problems? Well, that depends on your perspective,” said the Dane.

“Give me yours.”

“Alright,” Thomas said, “”I won’t pretend to understand all the technical shit, but there is a discrepancy.”

“What do you mean a discrepancy?”

“Between the prognoses and the surveys,” Thomas said. “Our data doesn’t match theirs.”

The geological analysis they had carried out used a more refined version of the hyper-spectral imaging techniques the US Geological Survey team had used on the original Afghan surveys in 2007. NASA aircraft had flown over the country for 43 days, measuring the reflectance of material on and below the surface of that desolate nation. The survey had resulted in more than 800 million individual pixels of data. Thomas’s firm had been hired to put boots on the ground, carry out core testing, other sampling beyond Jonathon’s understanding, and to then compare each data point to the reference samples using the new technologies available. Initial official estimates had put the value of the mineral deposits at somewhere north of one trillion dollars. Unofficial guesstimates, still quite classified, had showed an even more immense amount of wealth buried under those desolate mid-eastern mountains. Gold, silver, copper, but more importantly, a huge amount of REMs, rare earth metals, the latter alone valued by some at up to three trillion dollars. 

Jonathon clenched his eyes. “What do you mean the data doesn’t match?”

The impatience in the Dane’s voice made his enunciation even more garbled. “The results we are showing do not match the previous surveys. Not even close.”

“Go on.”

“OK,” Thomas said with a deep sigh,” So the whole point of this project is to bring the new measuring technologies into play, to get a more detailed analysis of what’s down there, yeah?”

“I’m well aware of the project parameters, Thomas.” 

“So our guys had this new algorithm or some such thing, that they wanted to try out. Evidently very cutting edge.”


“So, what these algorithms are showing, combined with the spot samples and the new imaging, is not a more detailed result, but an entirely different one.”

Jonathon sighed. “Are you telling me our algorithms are wrong? That the new technology is flawed?”

“What I’m telling you is that they’re not.” 

The Dane was silent, Jonathon the same. The estimation of the untapped wealth below the Afghan soil, Jonathon knew, had no doubt influenced his country’s interest in the area and its persistent military presence. Unfortunate if the estimation of that wealth was unfounded, thought Jonathon, even more unfortunate to have to be the bearer of bad news, to inform the greedy generals that their treasure chest was much smaller than imagined, but even if the Pentagon’s desire to shoot the messenger might be strong, better to find out now that those desolate rocks did not contain as much future wealth as previously thought than to waste millions more dollars, thousands more lives, finding out. 

“Well,” Jonathon sighed, “even if our survey doesn’t give them the payday they were hoping for, it will spare them from throwing good money after bad.”

“What the fuck are you talking about Yonathon?” Thomas’ confusion almost rattling the phone in Jonathon’s hand.

“I assume that our surveys are showing that the resources previously identified are not nearly as rich as expected, yes?”

Thomas laughed softly. “No, Yonathon, that’s not the problem,” he said.

Jonathon opened his eyes, held the phone tight to his ear. “Thomas, in clear terms then, tell me what the problem is.”

“The problem,” the Dane replied, “is that there are a lot more of those REMs down there than the original surveys showed.” He paused. “A whole fucking lot more.”


In the heart of Africa lies a country as large as Western Europe that is largely unknown to the average westerner. A nation with many names, formerly the Kingdom of Kongo, Belgian Congo, then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Congo-Kinshasa (to distinguish it from the Republic of Congo, its neighbor to the northeast), or simply the Congo, this vast country has hardly any roads or railways, the health and education systems lie in ruins, brutality and starvation run rampant, and with an average annual wage of less than four hundred dollars, it is home to the poorest people in the world. It is also the richest nation on the planet. 

For under the Congo’s impoverished surface, deep within its rain forests, far below its mountains, lie some of the world’s largest deposits of diamonds, gold, copper, and raw minerals, an untapped treasure estimated to be worth more than twenty-four trillion dollars. 

Through the grimy window of the sand colored Humvee, Daniel Hunter Holt II could see only the ravaged landscape northeastern province of Ituri, no evidence of any such treasure in sight. He knew it was there, was in fact the ultimate reason for his presence in this god forsaken land. The Humvee barreled down the packed dirt road, bouncing across potholes, sending tremors up his spine. The riches were there, he knew, because armies were only ever sent to where the money was. 

Studying history at Yale, Daniel had read about the tragic history of the land around him, and the promise of riches that underpinned its curse. In 1884, with the European powers busy carving up the Dark Continent among themselves, King Leopold II of Belgium had a dream that his tiny nation would also join the league of empires. His government, however, refused to finance his fancy. And so, Leopold II laid claim to a vast and mostly unexplored region of central Africa around the Congo River. Not for Belgium, but for himself. The ironically named Congo Free State that he founded was run as a corporate entity, the world’s largest slave plantation, with Leopold as its undisputed master. The people of the Congo were treated as disposable labor. In the 23 years Leopold II ruled, his private army, the Force Publique, imposed gruesome penalties for not meeting rubber or ivory quotas, cutting off hands and genitals, flogging villagers to death, starving the population, burning villages. All in all, more than 10 million natives, approximately half of the population, were massacred. And Leopold became very wealthy in the process.

International reaction to his reign, arising from the eyewitness accounts of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists alike of a holocaust of monstrous proportions, triggered what is widely considered as the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century. The movement attracted luminaries from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and resulted in the first global media war, with both Leopold and his detractors using the global press to champion their causes. By 1908, when public outrage and diplomatic pressure forced Leopold to end his megalomaniacal rule and agree to the annexation of the Congo as a Belgian colony, the country was in chaos. 

A century later, it still was. The land of Leopold had been involved in both world wars, suffered numerous incursions from the eight countries surrounding, and was in a state of perpetual internal strife. From rubber and ivory demand shifted to gold, diamonds, uranium, and coltan, history seemingly refusing to release the country from its death grip. For the last quarter of a century or so, the Congo had once again been wracked by a brutal tide of killing, hosting the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, with more than five million people killed, millions more driven to the brink by starvation and disease, millions of women and girls raped. Same, same, but different. The difference being that this time there was no humanitarian intervention, no media outcry. A seemingly interminable war that sucked in soldiers and rebels from nine nations and mercenaries from countless others, a truly global conflict fought almost entirely inside the borders of a single doomed country.

Far from being helped by its theoretical wealth, the impoverished nation struggled under its curse, those buried riches attracting waves of greedy adventurers, unscrupulous corporations, blood thirsty warlords, and widening the murderous rifts between the two main ethnic groups, the Tutsis and the Hutu. Leopold’s Force Publique now replaced by local militias, international forces, and mercenary fighters, pirates all, after the hidden treasure. Leopold’s legacy running strong.

The Humvee moved at high speed, small clouds of dry red clay rising behind, dust devils spinning off to die in the ditches alongside the road. Daniel sat erect in the rear of the vehicle, cradling the Heckler & Koch 416D assault rifle on his lap, staring out the dust caked window. His history books had done nothing to prepare him for the reality of what lay beyond the glass. Burned skeletons of grass roofed clay huts lined the roadside, the bloated carcasses of mules and dogs lay scattered around, the occasional human corpse lying stiff and unmourned, left to bloat in the sun. An endless line of villagers walked sleepily along the ditch bank towards the approaching vehicle as if in a trance. The bent backs of old women carrying kindling wood for fires, the men with salvaged possessions strapped across their backs, makeshift weapons of hoes, clubs, and sticks under their arms, children with protruding bellies and glazed looks. A young woman, thin as a skeleton, stepped out perilously close to the side of the Humvee, a swaddled child in her arms. Daniel saw the child’s face as they passed, lips spread and swollen, eyes wide, fixed, caked with flies, a yellow hue on its skin. Dead for days. The decreasing gap between knowledge and understanding. He let out a long, low breath. 

The man next to him glanced over, grunted. “And these are the lucky ones,” he mumbled. Daniel said nothing.

Daniel had enlisted a month after Yale, early graduation, a double major in political science and history under his belt. He completed Airborne School a year later, was accepted into the 75th Ranger Regiment at twenty-three. At twenty-four, having completed every training program offered, earning highest marks in both the sniper school and the Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape program, he was inducted into Delta Force, the most elite special operations force of the United States Army, under operational control of the Joint Special Operations Command. He had done four years in Delta Force before being recruited to join the Special Activities Division (SAD) of the CIA. SAD, the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert paramilitary operations unit, was one of the world’s most secretive special ops organizations. Gone the tan beret of the Rangers, gone the red arrowhead and dagger of the Delta Force insignia. Daniel’s uniform, like those of the men around him in the rattling Humvee, bore no insignia, no rank. Officially, they weren’t even here.

At twenty-eight, the youngest in his team, Daniel, was not the only one with a prestigious degree, but he was the only man without a beard, the only one free of ink, the only one not wearing wrap-around sunglasses. And the only one who hadn’t been in the Congo before. The Humvee slowed, navigated a turn in the road. A few shirtless men with machetes in their hands stood stone still and staring at the passing vehicle, their eyes yellow and blank, their faces lost in a cloud of dust as the Humvee roared past.

Six clicks down the road, a small township, most of the people on the street not moving at all. According to the radio reports that morning, in this small town alone, some 800 men, women, and children butchered by tribal militia. Daniel, one of a team of six, arriving too late to stop the massacre. He lowered the window of the Humvee as they idled down the street, seeing the remnants of the slaughter. Bodies mounded against the pock marked walls of the buildings, stacked three deep in the gutters, piled head high in front of the shattered door of the church at the end of the packed dirt street. A dozen burned carcasses lay on their backs in the center of the barren plot that served as the town square. Arms and legs stiff and curled upwards, flesh charred, lips gone, teeth exposed in forever smiles. 

The Humvee ground to a stop in the middle of the street, its engine clicking in the sun. Daniel exited the vehicle, his HK416D at the ready, was hit by a thick wall of stench. He felt the bile rise in his throat, tears well in his eyes. He cataloged the odors. The heavy perfume of cordite and burnt rubber, the cloying wet copper scent of blood, the burn of ammonia, vomit, and feces, and something else – a combination of spoiled chicken and rotting flowers. A sickly-sweet odor of flesh turning into something else. He breathed deep. Wanted to remember it.

He swallowed a swell of vomit, felt it burn down his throat, glanced around. Four of the very hard men around him now bent at the waist, emptying their stomachs onto the dirt. The sixth man, the Lieutenant leading the team, at Daniel’s side, chin high, hands on his hips, sunglasses pushed up on his forehead, eyes scanning the street. The Lieutenant grunted, spit on the ground, nudged Daniel with his elbow, and handed him a small tin of Vicks Vapor Rub.

“Never leave home without it.”

Daniel tried to speak, failed, felt bile rising in his throat.

“Rub it under your nose, get a little on the inside,” the Lieutenant instructed. “Burns like hell, but better than the Cadaverine.”


The Lieutenant quoted from memory. “A compound produced by the putrefaction of animal tissue.”

“Say what?” Daniel staring down at the rust stained ground, swallowing down his stomach.

“The stink that’s making you gag, Sergeant.”

Daniel nodded, reached out, took the small jar, spread the menthol balm liberally over his top lip, felt it burn inside his nostrils.

“Alright, Gentlemen,” the Lieutenant said, clapping his hands together, “let’s get active, shall, we? Got a paycheck to earn.”

The collapse of a recent deal between the DRC and Rwanda to combat rebel forces in the provinces of North and South Kivu had allowed the chaos that always simmered under the Congolese surface to once again bubble forth. Government troops, backed by thousands of UN peacekeepers, had so far failed to defeat the rebels. Reports of mass rapes, killings, slaughter committed by rebels and government troops alike once again ran rampant. Recriminations flew, retribution flourished. Daniel’s team was not here for any of that.

They were here for a particular warlord, trained and financed by CIA, who had gone rouge, taking certain sensitive information with him. The warlord’s allegiances, always fluid, now leaning Chinese. Daniel and his team were to apprehend this man, extract him to a secure location where his knowledge of his former financiers could be contained, the sensitive material recovered. So far, like today, they had been a day late, a dollar short.

One of the men jogged off to the darkened doorway of a burned-out cafe. The Lieutenant spit on the ground. Daniel could hear the clicking of the hummer’s motors behind him. From within the wrecked buildings he heard the moans and groans of injured villagers, the plaintive cry of a solitary infant. Among the stacks of dead, he detected slight movement, survivors buried under corpses. He started off towards the bodies. A second Humvee pulled up alongside the first, stopped, its engine still running. A wiry man with close cropped gray hair stepped out into the blinding sun, removed his mirrored shades, squinted up and down the street. He whistled loudly. Daniel turned.

“Son, where are you headed?”

“Sir?” The man bore no insignia, but his demeanor spoke of rank. A faded scar ran from just below his left eye to his jaw, creasing when he spoke.

“I asked you where you are headed.”

Daniel’s eyes cut to the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant shook his head slightly, cleared his throat. “Colonel, sir, we were…”

The older man kept his eyes on Daniel. “Wasn’t talking to you Lieutenant, was I?”

“Sir, no sir.”

Daniel stood blinking in the sun, eyes on the Colonel. “Sir, I thought I heard…”

The Colonel interrupted him. “You thought you heard what?”

“Survivors, sir.”

“Survivors.” The Colonel gave an odd smile. “And is taking care of survivors part of our directive, son?”

Daniel swallowed. “Indirectly, sir, yes sir.”

The Colonel took in Daniel’s clean-shaven cheeks, his closely shorn blond hair, the unmarked flesh of his arms. “You’re new, aren’t you son?”

“Nine months.”

“And first time in this glorious republic?”

“Yes sir.”

The Colonel nodded, took a few steps, closing the distance between them. “Well, recruit, tell me our indirect directives as you understand them.”


“What in the name of the sweet baby Jesus are we here for?”

Daniel blinked down at the shorter, wiry man. “To ensure that those who need to be saved get saved, and that those who need to get killed get killed.”

The Colonel smiled at the Ranger motto, let his eyes scan along the street, the stacks of bodies, the burnt corpses. “True, enough, son, but in this particular instance, we have more specific orders. And while I appreciate the sentiment, son, truly, our skills are required elsewhere.”

Daniel swallowed hard. “So we just leave?” As if to punctuate his meaning, the infant cried again.

“Why the hell not?” the Colonel asked with a faint smile. The soldier jogged back from the burned-out building, addressed the Lieutenant, shook his head. “Long gone.”

The Colonel looked to the Lieutenant, back at Daniel, then nodded. “Target’s gone. So, let’s get after the fucker, shall we?”

Daniel swallowed again. “With all respect, sir, isn’t part of our mission to aid and assist?”

The Colonel blinked in the sun, slid his sunglasses into his shirt pocket, repeated the words. “To aid and assist.” He nodded, turned to clock the other men, battle hardened vets, each and every one, but their faces pale in front of the macabre tableau before them. To a man, watching young Daniel challenge the grizzled veteran. The Colonel nodded his head again, cleared his throat. “Listen up, Gentlemen,” he said. “It’s a goddamn pity that we did not arrive 24 hours ago, truly is. We might have prevented this if we had.”

Mumbled agreement among the men, Daniel silent.

“But,” the Colonel continued, “then again, we might also have wound up stacked up in front of that pub yonder, or in that pile of smoldering bodies at the end of the street there.” He paused, letting the men take in the locations of their alternate fates. “And while my heart goes out to these poor souls, we can’t turn back the clock, can’t get here when we weren’t. Ain’t nothing we can do to undo what has transpired here.”

“We can help the survivors,” Daniel said. Another shrill cry from the infant rang out, was quickly silenced.

The Colonel stepped forward, a scant two feet between him and Daniel. The twisted flesh of his scar twitched in the sun, steel gray eyes barely visible through slitted lids. “Help them? How, son?” His eyes scanned the faces of the other men. “Seems to me that ‘bout as much killing and carnage that can be done, has been done, n’est pas? The UN boys will be along soon. Got medics, body bags, the whole nine yards. That’s their job, not ours.” The Colonel let his words settle. “Uncle Sam spent beau-coup taxpayer dollars training your sorry asses, turning you into the finest fighting machines on the surface of this godforsaken planet. And he most certainly did not intend to have you serving as fucking African street cleaners, do you read me?”

“But sir, with all due respect.” One of the other men, daring to speak. The Colonel turned, a glare with a touch of pity, a look that one might give a backward child. The man hesitated, continued in a smaller voice. “Sir, some of these people won’t last till then. With all respect.”

“Respect, son?” The pity faded, the words barked out. “Respect for who?” He glared around at the men, down the street to the church. “The reality of our situation is that we can either stay here and dig out those few who managed to get through this shit storm, help these folk bury their dead, give ‘em a shoulder to cry on, hell, I don’t know, maybe make ‘em tea or some shit, hearts and minds, all that.” He paused, shifted his gaze slowly from man to man. “Or we can saddle up and hit the road, and do our fucking job.” He turned to stare full on at the man who had spoken. “So, son, the question is, do you want to babysit the dead or do what you’re paid to do?”

The man hung his head. The other men shifted their gaze to Daniel, waiting. He felt the Colonel’s hand land on his shoulder, a firm squeeze, looked down to see the older officer looking him full in the face. 

“What do you say, recruit? Your call.”

“Sir? My call?”

The Lieutenant stammered his objection. “Colonel, it’s not an issue. We are…”

The Colonel held up his hand, stopping the Lieutenant. The smile of a shark. “Humor me, Lieutenant.”

“Yes sir.”

The Colonel, hands once again on his hips, scanning the men, then returning his gaze up at Daniel. “Son, contrary to my reputation, I am a big fan of democratic rule in most situations. And far be it from me to dampen your maternal instincts. So, we can either stay here and nursemaid these poor souls or head out and catch the murderous bastard that we’re here to apprehend. Your call.”

Daniel clocked the faces of the men, the stacks of corpses along the walls, piled in the gutters. In front of a bullet riddled cafe, a mound of shoes four feet tall, laces bloody, owners absent. He lifted his eyes to the charred, fossilized corpses in the church yard. He swallowed, opened his mouth to speak, and saw a young boy emerge from the shadows of the church, kicking a soccer ball down the dusty road. Daniel watched the figure of the boy as he dribbled his way around the stacks of bodies, the mounds of discarded clothing, kicking the ball ahead of him as he went. 

“Son?” The Colonel’s voice in his ear.

The little boy came closer, Daniel again readying his tongue to speak. A female voice ringing out in Swahili from a doorway, her tone angry, her words rushed. Daniel struggled to understand, caught only the words ‘devil” and ‘stop”. The little boy stopped, his foot trapping the ball. He called back, his tone apologetic. Daniel heard the words ‘Mama’ and ‘Sorry’, then with a final kick of the ball, the lad scurried off towards his mother’s voice, the ball rolling lazily down the street towards the Humvees.

The impatient clearing of the Colonel’s throat, the ball rolling to a stop some ten meters away. And Daniel seeing that the ball was not a ball, but a human head. Hair matted, mouth wide, eyes torn from their sockets, a thick layer of dried blood and dust smoothing the skull. Daniel shut his eyes, let out his breath, opened his eyes to face the Colonel.

“We do our job, sir. Complete the mission. Always.”

The Colonel’s hand patting his shoulder hard, his head nodding affirmation to Daniel’s words. “Goddamn right we do, son, goddamn right.”

Daniel felt the Colonel’s hand slide from his shoulder and turned his gaze back up the street. A dog slunk across the road, heading for the ball that was not a ball.

“You heard the golden boy,” the Colonel yelled out, “now let’s get this show on the road.”

They arrived too late at the next village and the next, the warlord a few steps ahead, bodies in his wake. The familiar sight of corpses stiffening in the sun, curled fingers clutching at something forever gone, the now familiar odor, sickeningly sweet, the burn of the menthol in Daniel’s nose. They bounced along the clay roads, each jar of the Humvee cementing what Daniel had seen in his mind. 

At dusk the following day, they stopped on a ridge above a crossing, two pot holed roads, a scattering of huts at their apex. They dismounted, saw through their scopes and binoculars a full platoon of soldiers far below, some wearing the uniforms of the FARDC, the Congolese regular army, others in jeans and tee shirts, as they stopped vehicles at the cross roads, extracted bribes, beat the reluctant, shot the occasional fleeing refugee.

The Colonel had stepped up beside him, read the look in Daniel’s eyes. “Too many of them,” he grunted, “and not our fucking fight.”

“And if we spot the target?”

The Colonel smiled. “Then we rain righteous vengeance down upon all those sons of bitches.”

Through the night, Daniel stood point, watching through his scope, seeing the soldiers, red eyed, singing and dancing, drinking, chewing Kat. He watched as they stopped a school bus full of refugees from a Catholic school. A priest in a dusty cassock exited the bus, his lips silently pleading with the soldiers. A gun stock smashing against his cheek, a gash of crimson flowing down. A young girl in school uniform exited the bus, came to stand behind the priest. Two red eyed soldiers were on her immediately, their hands on her budding breasts, under her skirt. Daniel saw her mouth open in a scream, but could hear no sound. He heard the Colonel by his side, removed his eye from the scope.


A heavy sigh. “Son, I know.”

Daniel’s eyes meeting his, cutting down to the crossroads and back. “I can make the shot.”

“I’m sure you can, son, and nothing would please me more.” The older man sighed, he shook his head. “We are not to engage.”

“But, sir.”

“Not to engage son.” He gave Daniel an appraising look. “There’s another factor you need to consider.”


“Despite their despicable methods, that group yonder is, for the time being, on our side in this fight.”

“On our side? Are you fucking kidding?” Daniel took a breath. “Apologies, sir.”

“None needed, and no, son, I am not fucking kidding. Those monsters down there are not the monsters we are pursuing on this particular day. These sons of dogs are, for the moment at least, on our side of this cluster fuck, much as it pains me. And as such, whatever vile shit they get up to, we are not to engage. Period.” He looked up at Daniel. “Tell me you read me, son.”

“We are not to engage.”

“Good man.”

A quick pat on his shoulder, then the Colonel walking away, Daniel’s eye again to his scope. He watched as the rebels slaughtered the priest, then cut him to pieces, removed his heart and liver and placed them on an oil can grill to cook. And Daniel kept watching. The girls were herded from the bus and into a lean to by the side of the crossroads. Other vehicles arrived, their occupants forced to cough up money, gold, or eat the roasted human flesh to be allowed to leave. In one car, four men, three women and three children, refusing both alternatives, were killed. One of the women was pregnant. A red eyed soldier gutted her, threw her unborn child upon the fire. Daniel’s eye on the scope, his finger itching towards the trigger. 

The Colonel’s hand again on his shoulder. “Time to move, son. Target’s spotted elsewhere.”

Daniel nodding down at the crossroads. “I could just scare them off.”

The Colonel shook his head slowly. “Small consolation though it may be, but taking out a few of them won’t change a goddamn thing. Might even make it worse.”


“Trust me when I say that no one wishes to wreak havoc upon these vile creatures more than me, but now is not the time or the place.” He spit on the ground. “Ours is not to question why. Do you read me, son?”

Daniel eyed him calmly, nodded. “Tennyson, sir?”

“Indeed.” The Colonel smiled. “Good to know the classics. A vanishing trait.”

“But sir?” Daniel swallowing hard.

“Yes, son?”

“The quote is ‘theirs is not to question why’. Not ‘ours’”. The Colonel’s unblinking stare. Daniel trailed off. “We should kill those fuckers.”

The Colonel looked at him long and hard, a faint smile playing across his thin lips. “Son, do you believe that some people can see into the future?”


“That some people have the gift of foretelling events before they happen?”

“No sir, I do not.”

The Colonel gave a small laugh. He spit on the ground. “Well, believe it or not, but I occasionally exhibit a certain skill in that regard.” He took his hand from Daniel’s shoulder. “And suffice it to say that my vision of one particular future is crystal clear. Before all is said and done, you will have enough killing under your belt to satisfy whatever hunger for it you may have. A lot of bad men will meet their maker at your hands.” He peered down at the crossroads. “Satisfy yourself with that for the time being.”

“Sir, yes sir.” 

The Colonel nodded, sighed.  He looked up, met Daniel’s gaze for a long while. “It’s all about time and place, son. Time and place.”