Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Recruit

Ever wondered how you become a spy?

(short story - PG-13)

Like a worm burrowing into an apple; that’s how it felt. Not that you could have felt anything. They’re that good! 

No, the compliance they seek comes through exploitation of you and your weaknesses. It’s sad… but honest. We all have weaknesses. Sometimes it’s the personal peccadilloes that haunt our inner thoughts and deeds. Sometimes it’s not something we have but something we crave. No, I’m not talking about money, though if that’s what’ll get the job done, they’ll do that as well… if it’s worth their while. For many, like me, it’s being someone.

That’s probably confused you even more.

Let me briefly turn the clock back and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I was a lonely kid. Yeah, you say, heard it before. Yet my solitary childhood was not borne out of being an unsociable nerd whose only interests were comic books and computer games. No, I guess that would have earned me some friends at least, even if they also lived out their lives between the multicoloured pages of cheap escapist fantasy or the flashing vibrancy of the console. No, it was all down to my parents. More specifically my Dad. He was a troubleshooter for a nationwide supermarket firm. When any local store started hitting the red, he was sent there for six-months to a year to turn the thing around. He worked for the Head Office of the supermarket chain; we, my sister, my mother and I, didn’t. So I never could get my head around why we had to pack up and move to a different city every time his employer had a crisis. Not that I could have asked him either. He spent over fifteen hours a day at the stores, weekends included. Vacations? My sis and I were shipped off to relatives for a couple of weeks.

And, with the moves, came new schools, new ‘friends’, new routines. We never got into any of the on-going activities at school – we always knew that whenever we got pumped up about joining something, as if by magic, the next day Mom would announce an upcoming move. It seemed to me the more I wanted to be a part of some group or other, the further away we’d move. Crazy, yeah, paranoid even.

As soon as I could, I jumped. I dumped schooling and found a ‘steady’ job. Steady meant not having to move every few months. I had next-to-no qualifications so the jobs were increasingly crappy.

Then one day I got hit by a car.

Some guy, talking on his cell phone, driving his Beamer with one hand, clipped me. In truth, he didn’t hit me, only my bike. I was doing messenger work then, pedalling as fast as I could, delivering other peoples’ packages around the City. I was thrown off to one side and the bike spiralled the other way, finishing beneath his front tyres. I had a few cuts and bruises; the bike was a write-off.

Anyway, the driver insisted on paying me for the damage, in fact giving me enough to buy a much better bike, a new one at that. He also said he wanted to take me to a hospital to have me checked out. I told him I was okay; after all, with traffic as it is in the City, it wasn’t the first time I’d taken a tumble. He did say he’d at least spring for a coffee. I’d finished for the day anyway, and now, with no bike, I’d probably finished, period.

So there we were, sitting at a table in a nice coffee bar; him, in a smart two-piece suit and white shirt, and me, covered with dust and blood streaks, drinking chocolate-flavoured coffee. David, he said his name was. He was far more nervous than me. I guess he thought I’d stick him with a huge insurance claim. I told him that he shouldn’t worry; I was used to stuff like that screwing up my life. He asked me why I said that and, inexplicably I found myself giving him a potted account of what I’d accomplished during my twenty-two years. He listened, made appropriate sympathetic noises, asked a few questions and that was that. He said he wanted to try to help me sort things out; something about almost having killed me made me somehow his responsibility. So I gave him my name and address, and we parted.

Two weeks later he showed up at my new job, burger-flipper, and told me to quit and come with him. He was a very soft-spoken bloke and now my first thought was that he was some sort of perv. Youthful prejudice, I suppose. Why the hell should I do that? I demanded. David said he had a new job for me that paid much better and had a stack of added benefits, like a company car.

Talk about the Fairy Godmother!

The job: messenger again. The pay: four times what I earned before. Plus I got a bonus for every package I delivered on schedule. They gave me a new Ford; sent me all over the country with boxes and envelopes, mileage paid for as well. Brilliant. Effin’ brilliant. I’d cracked it.

The office was one woman in a two-roomed storefront depot on the outskirts of London. She was nice enough, but I never saw anyone else; all out on deliveries, she said. Still the money came in on time and I felt I was finally doing something that someone appreciated. Better than flipping burgers, anyway.

I did this for a couple of years, then they stepped on the gas pedal.

Now, the car had been upgraded. So had the pay. But instead of hitting the road every day, I usually drove to and from the airport. My packages were now briefcases; my destinations all over the place. Asia, the Middle East, half of Europe, the States, even a trip to Venezuela once.

All I had to do was deliver on time and guard the package with my life. That’s what they’d said… with my life. And to back that up, they’d sent me on a month’s training course where I got to wear a balaclava all day, just like the others, as I we were shown how to fight and shoot guns and use knives. Real bloody James Bond stuff. I was made up!

They never said it directly. Just a hint, subtle like. We were sort of employees of the government now. Official couriers. Many of the briefcases I carried were documented as Diplomatic Pouches. I was never to break the seal though; never a peek inside. But I took to watching how the customs people at the airports reacted on the few occasions they shoved the cases through the X-ray machines before I could wave the paperwork under their noses. Eyebrows were raised; voices dropped to almost inaudible levels as they mumbled something to one another. Then they always glanced at me; thanked me; smiled; called me “Sir”.

Five years of doing that. Five years of clocking up hundreds of thousands of miles in flights. Now I was here. Royally screwed!

The transition from courier to… whatever I was now, had been sudden; just like getting run over on your bike.

One day I returned from a trip to Hong Kong, knackered after such a long flight which had been a seventy-two hour Hobbit Run, you know, a there-and-back-again job, to find David waiting for me in the ‘office’.

Fancy a trip? A simple enough question. I thought he was talking about another flight somewhere. He pointed to his car, a new Beamer, parked outside. So off we went, into the City to a drab-looking office block. Loads of people here though, and security like you wouldn’t believe. Passes, keyboard codes, eyeball scanners, the lot.

Finally we went into a room where another bloke waited. He was introduced as Mr. Smith. Older than David, balding, a bit paunchy. He stood and held out his hand as we entered. The hand was for me; he practically ignored David.

“Welcome, welcome. Heard a lot about you. All good. Sit down. Sit down, please.” All accompanied by a big smile, yellowing teeth. “How would you like to step up a grade?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I guess I must have looked a bit dumb, because he glanced over at David, who nodded once, than looked back at me.

“We have this very special run that needs doing. It’s high risk. Very high risk. You’ll be armed for this one” (not the first time, but certainly not common). “Private flight out, then on to somewhere or other. You’ll be met after the flight. It’s a package this time.” He pointed over at a side table. There sat a brown paper-covered parcel about twice the size of a shoebox. String had been tied around it to provide a handhold. “Triple pay on this one. Danger money.” He winked. Bloody James Bond again. I loved it. “Just hand it over and leave.”

“Can’t I just give it to whoever meets me after the flight?” I may have been an unqualified burger-flipper once, but I wasn’t stupid.

“No. Definitely not. We need to know exactly when it reaches its final destination. You’ll delivery it to this man, and no one else. Then you call us. Understood?” He flipped over a large photo. It was grainy, taken from a distance and blown up, but if you held it at arms’ length, you could make out the face easily enough. “Him and no one else, got it?”

I nodded and handed back the photo. Good memory, me.

Next came the logistics. Tickets. A new passport, nicely battered and used; a fake name. Even a wallet full of matching credit cards and a large wad of cash. A nice new smartphone with one number pre-programmed. I had to surrender all my own stuff. This was going to be all covert, he said. Wink, wink. Don’t use the phone for anything else; it’s untraceable and I had to call using that device and no other as soon as I delivered the package to the man in the photo in person. More bloody James Bond. I was flying!

David drove me to the airport. He chatted away about how there were great things awaiting me on my way back; how this little trip was a sort of test; so don’t screw anything up. He also gave me a gun, a couple of spare ammunition clips and a belt holster. The gun was a bloody Walther, just like James Bond’s. I was living one of my comics now.

The General Aviation area of the airport was familiar; I had flown out of here on business jets several times, but nothing like this. No Customs people around though. We drove straight to the plane. I retrieved the package from the floor between my feet, and walked up the stairs. At the top I turned around, intending to wave at David, but his Beamer was already heading for the exit.

I was the only passenger. Deep cream-coloured, soft leather seats. Great food; self-service. Even a couple of in-flight movies on a small screen that dropped down out of the low ceiling. No booze, not even a beer. Need to keep sharp; good idea that. No bloody Vodka Martinis for me.

Soon after take-off, night descended. I had a vague feeling we were flying south… -ish, but apart from a “Fasten Seat Belts” command as we taxied to the runway, I didn’t see or hear from the pilots during the flight. I stood up after about three hours, in between the movies, and tried the cabin door. It was locked. Covert, covert, I kept saying to myself.

Finally we landed. I have no idea where. It wasn’t an airport. It was a strip in the middle of nowhere. Only the landing lights were on. The jet hit the tarmac, taxied back to a point about midway along, where another stretch of asphalt disappeared into the darkness, and stopped. A couple of clicks, the cabin door opened and I had a brief glimpse of lots of coloured lights and another man inside. The co-pilot opened the main door and without a word, stepped back into the cabin. I took the hint. Covert!

I picked up my package and stepped outside.

Behind me the door was pulled shut and I heard the engines start to rev up. I took that as my cue to move away. I walked about fifty yards into the darkness along the asphalt, before the wash from the jet’s engines bathed me in stinky fumes. I watched it as it turned and ran to the far end of the runway. No navigation lights. Covert, right. It took off and was quickly lost against the night sky.

Where in hell was I?

The air felt warm. I bent down and touched the tarmac; it was dry and retained the heat of the previous day. South, -ish. Africa maybe. Middle East. Devon. Who the hell knew?

I waited. I took out the gun a couple of times, checking I’d loaded a magazine and there was one up the spout, safety on.

After an hour or so, the horizon glowed with the first few rays of a rising sun. The temperature climbed quickly. Soon I had my jacket off. No, Devon it wasn’t.

Another hour and I heard a car. It took me a few seconds to pick it out against the haze rising from the tarmac. It was a battered Merc. One man inside. I walked towards it and soon I was alongside.

The guy behind the wheel was mid-thirties, dark hair, tanned. He held out his hand. I held onto the package. He got the message and leaned over to open the front passenger door. I climbed in, relieved to feel the cool air-con pluck the heat out of my body.

The drive was over two hours along dust-filled roads. The suspension fought a losing battle against potholes, and the driver swerved sharply without warning more than once. The red dust seemed to find its way inside the car despite having the windows wound tight. I guess Devon was definitely ruled out; Africa was the candidate now. We passed a few small villages. Signs, some in English, others in gibberish. Few people though. They all stopped and watched us as we sped past.

Finally, I could see the coast. What a contrast! A deep blue ocean stretched as far as I could see. A sandy beach; the road ending alongside a cluster of low, off-white buildings that looked as if they had been bombed at one point, recently. Outside, another Merc, though that one was nicer.

With a flurry of red dust, we pulled up and the driver got out. He’d not said a word throughout the trip. I’d tried to get him to speak; either he didn’t understand me, or he preferred silence. After a few tries, I’d given up. Now he pointed at one of the buildings.

I stepped out of the car. Hot, dry heat beat at me, accompanied by a veritable army of mosquitoes. I grabbed the package from the foot well and walked toward the ruins.

As I entered, I fingered the butt of the Walther.

“That won’t be necessary, I assure you.” The voice from the shadows over to my left. Deep shadows; deep voice. I stepped closer. My eyes picked out three men sitting in the shade on aluminium deckchairs. A small folding table had been set up over to one side. “Please place the package on the table. Thank you.”

I found my voice after coughing up some of the red dust.

“I need to confirm who I’m delivering to.” I said it in my best Connery impression.

The man on the right stood and took a step into the light. It was the bloke in the photo back in London. I nodded, and placed the package on the table.

“I need to confirm delivery,” I said, taking out my cell phone.

“There is intermittent reception here. You need to travel back inland for about a mile. The driver will take you there. Leave the package. Your job is done.”

One of the other men spoke. I didn’t catch more than a couple of words, but one of those was “diamonds”. The boss man didn’t reply; he just stood there waiting for me to leave.

“I’ll be off then.” I turned and walked outside.

The driver was back in the Merc, the engine running.

Five minutes later we were picking up speed along the dirt road and I hit the speed dial.

We must have been at least a mile or two away, yet the noise of the explosion was unmistakable. The driver slammed on the brakes, and threw open his door, jumping out, looking back.

I climbed out also. In the distance a dense black column of smoke marked where we’d been.

I sensed movement from the driver. He was running back to the car. He opened the back door and took out an AK47. Before he could bring it up, I shot him. I emptied the magazine, replaced it with a new one, before walking closer. Two shots had hit.  The rest… Well, two had been enough.

I ditched the cell phone. I took the car. Headed inland for a few miles then south along the coast. I eventually found a town, found a working landline phone and made a call. They were surprised to hear from me. Not that they said as much; I just noticed it in David’s voice.

That’s how I got from being a burger-flipping drop-out to becoming a government assassin. Just goes to show. We all have weaknesses. I have two: I have more than my fair share of luck, and I discovered I like killing.

For Queen and country, of course.

Copyright 2013 Eric J. Gates. All rights reserved. (Not available for Re-blogging without prior permission).

Surprise fact: did you know this story is connected to the last two ( and - want to know how? The answer lies in a fourth tale 'The would-be widow' and you can only read it here: Innovate issue 4 on Amazon

It's a great buy because 50% of all profits will be donated to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (

If you have enjoyed the tales, please read the last one, solve the puzzle and help a worthy cause!

Have a great Summer, everyone.
If you would like to read more of my writing, there are 6 (shortly to be 7) full-length suspense thrillers available on Amazon. Details of these novels, with global Amazon links and extracts here: 

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Lion Man

Some are born... some are made... some are pushed...

(short story - PG-13)

(inspired by a real event)

The golden yellow eyes of the lioness tracked him as he walked slowly toward it. She moved her head slowly, calculating distances; the gap between this two-legged creature and her cubs. Titus Muga advanced, an idiotic smile on his face. Be friendly, he thought, as if the feline could read his mind as he placed one foot firmly in front of the other.

Some called it Fate; others Destiny, but for Titus it was none of those. That day was Rebirth.

It had started like any of the preceding days during the six months he had been working for the Safari Tour outfit. Collect the eight foreigners at the lodge in the Masai Mara Reserve, the northern Kenyan extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti, and shuttle them around in the four-wheel drive minibus. Point out the animals so they could ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and snap pictures with cameras that cost more than he made in three years. This time it was worse: the group were all Americans. Titus had nothing against Americans, just that they were lousy tippers. He would spend the morning trying to locate cheetah or lions, only to receive a five-shilling tip, less than twenty cents in their currency. What made it worse was they never haggled in the shops he took them to on the drive back to Nairobi. There, the shopkeepers would ask a hundred dollars for a cheap soapstone carving you could easily buy for five shillings in Nairobi’s central market, and they would get it without a quibble. They would ask two hundred dollars for bracelets made from ‘real’ African elephant hair too. If the tourist knew even a little about wildlife, they would recognize the dense black smoke given off by the black plastic strands when you held a flame underneath, was not something associated with elephant hair. If it wasn’t for the kickback he received, Titus would not be able to put food in the bellies of his mother and brothers.

He should not even have been there; not just driving the tourists, but driving, period. Titus had not reached his fifteenth birthday yet. He was big for his age, and smart, thanks to the teachings of his Indian father before he left their fruit, vegetable and spice store in the market to attend a relative’s funeral in India, and never return. That was two years ago. His wife, Titus’ mother, was African from the Luo tribe, and once they all realized they had been abandoned, Titus began to use his mom’s surname, rather than the staccato-sounding name his father had left. That helped little; he was still a mongrel. His facial features, far more akin to the fine features of his father than the chubbier cheeks of his mother, labelled him as half-caste wherever he went. The food store had to close and getting a job to support his family became the definition of despair itself. Finally he lied about his age and using his experience of driving his father’s truck, had secured the safari driver position.

So, a normal day; up at four, prepare the Volkswagen, fill it with petrol, clean the windows, inside and out, and then eat a meagre meal with the other drivers before collecting his charges at six-thirty. Need to be out on the Mara before the heat made it too uncomfortable for them; that was the plan.

He’d been lucky. He had spotted a group of lions on the hunt the previous evening, followed them with this group of Americans for a couple of hours. Today, he though he knew where to find them and they would be soporific after gorging themselves on their kill, which would make for great photographs. He had found the felines after an hour and, seeing many other minibuses headed across the savannah toward them, he chose to drive close to the pride. That had been their undoing.

He approached to within ten metres and switched off the engine, unaware he had just compounded the error. The pride comprised two males, four females and several cubs, the most dangerous of the lot. Yes, those cuddly, playful months-old lion cubs were dangerous. They had no fear of Man, especially in these strange tin boxes with wheels that stopped to watch their antics. They were blessed, at this young age, with insatiable curiosity,  not curbed with caution at all. This made them stroll too near the minibus, something the ever-watchful mothers did not appreciate. Although the black-maned male lions got to eat first, and took the largest portions of the kill, it was the females that did the work. The males were usually lazy, feeding and sleeping, mating occasionally, and even more rarely chasing off errant suitors looking to form their own prides. The lionesses did the rest, including the hunting. Now he was under the apprehensive gaze of the largest female in the pride.

Many thoughts could have been racing through Titus’ mind as he slowed his advance, the lioness now only fifteen metres away. He might have been thinking the lions had made a good kill, eaten their fill and were now drowsy as their digestion slowed their metabolism. That may have given him comfort and support as he undertook the longest stroll of his life. He might have not been thinking at all, his mind a blank, his smile frozen, his body awaiting the ripping talons of the big feline. Yet, in this epiphanic moment, his thoughts were ordered and constant. Titus Muga was thinking about his father; specifically about his father’s rules, drummed into him through constant repetition since he had started to help out in the store at four years old.

His father’s life had been dictated by rules, most of which he made up himself, yet all of which he insisted Titus and his brothers should follow to become ‘better’ men, as he phrased it. The rules governed everything. There were business rules (“buy cheap but good quality; sell for profit always, but do not be greedy if you want business for many years”), success rules (“always go that extra mile for your customers; do what others will not, supply what they need when others cannot”), cohabitation rules (“have few friends and always treat them well” tempered with “a true man is judged through his friends; trust few people and always do be loyal to them”), and rules that, in their way, were deeply philosophical (“never lie to yourself; know who you are at all times”). Titus, therefore, had few friends, his two younger siblings and one other boy, and his loyalty was exemplary and exaggerated.

As the lioness moved her head again, her eyes following the headlong rush of a playful cub attracted by this approaching curiosity, Titus was wondering which rule he should apply now.

He reached the back corner of the stranded minibus. When they had all walked away from the vehicle, a few minutes before, he had closed the big sliding side-door so the big cats would not be tempted to shelter inside from the heat of the day. The handle to open it was now only two metres away; two metres closer to the lioness.

He felt a small thump against his leg and tried to use his peripheral vision to detect its source; he did not want to shift his gaze from the lioness, even for a second. A bundle of fur, gold with light and dark streaks, careened around his feet; the cub.

Titus took a short step forward, his jaw aching with the forced smile now, nearer to the door handle. He felt the mischievous swipe of the cub’s paw as it tried to incite him into its game. Slowly he reached out his hand and took hold of the door. The noise was the worry now; it could provoke the lioness into attacking, confusing its unknown rumble, as it ran along its tracks, with an attack on the cub. Gently he exerted pressure, feeling the metal and glass unlock and start to move toward him. He kept moving and slipped into the minibus. The cub cried out as its playmate departed; a sound causing the lioness to prick her ears. Titus closed the door and sat on the nearest seat, blowing air through distended cheeks.

He glanced at the seats alongside him, then at those in the row behind. Nothing. Finally he leaned forward, checking the front passenger seat, still covered with parts from the starter motor which had been demolished by the shrub that had sprung back after the nose of the VW had pressed it down. By ripping out the bulkhead for access, he had tried to collect the pieces and fix the motor, but it had been in vain. After a two-hour wait, an empty minibus had arrived and they had all walked over to it together, the lion pride watching with curious boredom.

So if it wasn’t on the seats, it could only be on the floor. He bent down. There! Titus slipped back to the last row and recovered the passenger’s billfold. As he picked it up, a slip of off-white paper fluttered to the floor. He picked it up, his eyes reading the handwritten words. He recognized the name and the address. Many in Nairobi knew of this person. Titus shook his head and opened the billfold to replace the paper inside. He spotted an elegant business card in a transparent plastic compartment: JOEL SCHUMAN, Jeweller, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Titus nodded to himself. Those facts, together with the handwritten note, told him the whole tale.

He stuffed the billfold into his trouser pocket, taking care it could not fall out. Outside he could see the lioness yawning, looking away from the VW. Titus shrugged and pulled open the side door just enough to allow his passage to the outside. Before stepping out, he glanced down to ensure the cub was not underfoot.

Now, facing away from the lioness, he began his walk back to the safety of the waiting minibus.

The cub danced past him, circling back, her paws trying to catch the flapping cloth of his trouser bottoms as he walked. Titus risked a peek over his shoulder. He watched, mesmerized, as the lioness stood, muscles and sinews rippling in the harsh sun as she threw off her tiredness. Titus kept moving at the same slow pace. The cub continued its game at his feet. He had to make sure he did not tread on it or that would be his last. Another furtive glance over his shoulder; the lioness was standing still, watching him.

‘Don’t run’, he repeated to himself as he forced his feet to close the distance to the waiting minibus. He looked toward the other VW; its windows were full of faces with expressions of fear mixed with awe. He moved his head slowly; a quick glimpse. The lioness was now following, fifteen metres behind, maintaining the distance as together they neared his sanctuary.

The deadly ballet of synchronized steps advanced; only the cub had a rhythm of its own; for every step Titus took, the lioness matched his stride easily. He knew she could catch him in two, maybe three leaps.

Ten metres separated Titus from the working minibus. Titus paused. He turned toward the cub’s mother unhurriedly, as though he had all the time in the world. He spoke, using a gentle tone.

“Come on, Mother, take your little one. I wish it a long life. And for me too.”

He stood still. He forced the tension from his body.

The lioness walked closer, unafraid of the man-creature. It stopped briefly and sniffed at his legs, turned away, then used her mouth to pick up the cub by the scruff of its neck, and majestically returned to the pride beneath the trees.

Titus waited until the mother had loosed the cub and lain down in the grass again, then he covered the remaining few metres to the vehicle and climbed inside.

“That was amazing!”

“I’ve never seen anything like that!”

“What an unbelievable story to tell back home.”

Titus ignored the accolades, the pats on his shoulders. He glanced at the other driver, saw him shake his head from side to side, heard him say something in Kiswahili. Still shaking his head, the driver started the minibus.

Titus extracted the billfold and handed it to its owner.

The large American took hold of the wallet then grabbed Titus’ hand, pumping it with gusto.

“I didn’t expect you to go look for it,” he said through a beaming smile. “I just remarked I must have lost it back there.”

Titus understood the man was apologizing, in his way. Titus was about to explain about his father’s rules when the man continued.

“What did the driver say to you?”

“He called me ‘Simba Mtu’. That means Lion Man in Kiswahili.”

The American took Titus’ hand, raised it to the roof of the minibus and proclaimed to all.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Titus, the Lion Man, Simba…” he looked at Titus.

“…Mtu,” he responded, smiling broadly.

“Yes, Mr. Titus, the Lion Man. SIMBA MTU!” The whole minibus reverberated with the yells and whoops of the passengers.

Schuman opened his billfold and extracted several hundred-dollar bills. He extended them toward Titus.

“I can’t thank you enough. You have no idea how important this,” he hefted the billfold, “means to me.”

“No. I cannot take the money. I… it is my customer service,” mumbled Titus, lifting his palm toward the American to emphasize his rejection of the reward. “I have gained a new name from this, so it has been a good day.”

“No, Titus, you have gained far more than that. You now have a friend for life in me.” Schuman held out his hand.

A friend. An American friend.

Titus shook the proffered hand, then lowered his voice.

“If I may be so bold with my new friend. I saw the name on the paper in your wallet; it fell out in the ‘bus. These are not good people. You should be very careful.”

Still clutching Titus’ hand, Schuman cocked his head to one side, a quizzical expression filling his face.

“Thank you. Thank you doubly, my friend. I will heed your words.”

Titus was sure he would not; greed was a powerful motivator; one his father’s rules warned against its lure.

*  *  *  *  *

Titus drove the group of Americans back to Nairobi in the recovered minibus. This time the tips were generous; Titus’ spectacle loosening the wallets of the tourists. For the next two days Titus was scheduled to drive distinct groups on day trips around the nation’s capital, visiting Karen Blixen’s farm and the Giraffe centre in the morning and the nearby Nairobi National Park in the afternoon. It was on his return to the Safari Tours office late on the second day when he discovered he had a visitor.

Joel Schuman looked very different from when Titus had last seen him. His face was drawn, black semicircles under his bloodshot eyes; he looked like he hadn’t slept for a while either. Titus instinctively knew what had happened. He took hold of Schuman’s elbow and steered him from the office and the curiosity of his co-workers. They went to Schuman’s hotel, a couple of blocks away. Sitting in the opulent lounge, Schuman leaned forward and in a quiet voice confirmed what Titus had suspected. He had come to Kenya to tap into the sale of the illegal rough diamonds that were making their way to East Africa from the Republic of Zaire over to the west. The situation there was a nightmare for the diamond trade, with rumours of civil war making the country an even more difficult business partner for Europe and the States. President Mobutu’s regime was a strategic Cold War ally for the US, but endemic corruption made buying uncut diamonds a dangerous undertaking. Somehow, Schuman had heard it would be easier through dealers in the more stable Kenya and had combined a long-overdue vacation with a buying trip.

His plan had gone wrong in a big way. There were indeed reliable diamond dealers based in Kenya, many willing to traffic in the wild-west of rough stones, but there were also just as many unscrupulous con men preying on the unwary. Schuman, tears now appearing at the corner of his eyes, explained that he needed to buy cheap otherwise his business back home was going to die. He was worried for his family; what were they going to do if their shop failed.

As Schuman’s tale unfolded, Titus nodded repeatedly. He had experienced the outcome of a successful business going belly-up almost overnight, albeit for different reasons, and sympathized with his new friend. He had tried, although perhaps not as forcefully as he might, to warn the American about dealing with Kianti Kimathi. Kimathi was Kikuyu, and had flourished under Kenya’s first President, also from the same tribe. He had become a name, always on the fringe of illicit dealings in everything from weapons to drugs. It was rumoured he had seen in the demand for rough diamonds, a veritable money-printing machine as western buyers looked to purchase the excellent stones coming out of Zaire’s mines without having to deal with the cutthroat politics and corruption of their country of origin. Kimathi was not content to take a decent cut as a dealer however. His game was the con.

Schuman explained how he had met with Kimathi on the same day of his return from the safari. He had been shown a bag of uncut diamonds, valued at two million dollars by Kimathi. Being a cautious man, used to handling the precious stones, he had examined them and concluded they were worth more than double the price Kimathi was asking. Titus shook his head; greed had been his friend’s undoing as he had supposed. Schuman had agreed to pay Kimathi’s price. The Kenyan told him all the paperwork needed to take the stones back legally to the States would cost an extra hundred thousand dollars, plus a further fifty thousand for his official local licence approval. Schuman had gone to the meeting expecting to leave a deposit for the stones and to pay certain fees, so he had brought cash. He had handed over a quarter of a million dollars, received a receipt and told the ‘dealer’ he would have the balance by the next morning. Kimathi had assured him the paperwork would be ready by then too. They set a time and place for their final meeting.

Yesterday, carrying a briefcase stuffed with almost two million dollars, Schuman had met the dealer in a room in another hotel. The money had been counted, the paperwork handed over, the bag of uncut stones produced… then the hotel room door had been kicked in. Three armed men, dressed as Kenyan police, had entered. They placed both men in handcuffs, confiscated the money and diamonds and hauled Kimathi away. They handcuffed Schuman to the wooden bed frame and told him there was not enough room in their jeep to transport everyone to the Police Station. They would return shortly, although an officer would be stationed outside the room to ensure Schuman did not flee.

Needless to say, after waiting for over an hour, Schuman tried yelling. He broke free of the bed and opened the hotel room door to find the on-duty policeman. No cop; no Kimathi; no diamonds; no money. It was then he realized he had been taken. He returned to his hotel, spent the night drinking, afraid even to call his family and report what had happened. The only person he knew there who he felt he could trust was Mr. Titus. What should he do?

For a brief moment, Titus was amused this middle-aged American was asking the advice of a fourteen-year old boy. Then he understood the level of despair of his new friend. He couldn’t go to the police; after all, what he had been attempting to do, buying diamonds on the black market, was illegal; he might even go to prison. Titus lapsed into silence, watched closely by Schuman. He knew where to find Kimathi; everyone did. He knew how dangerous the man was too. Then he remembered his father’s rules.

“I will help. Meet me here tomorrow morning. Seven o’clock.” He stood, ignoring Schuman’s effusive blustering and left. He made a brief stop back at the home his family now occupied in one of Nairobi’s shantytowns, then went in search of Kimathi.

The big Kikuyan was not hard to find. On seeing him seated at a rusty metal table outside a run-down bar, Titus remembered how the man had taken protection money from his father when the shop was his family’s source of income. He was not just helping a friend; this was now personal.

He approached the dealer.

“I am Titus Muga, Simba Mtu. You have my American friend’s money. Give it back!”

The large frame of the con man doubled over with laughter.

“Simba Mtu? Ha, ha, ha. Who gave you that stupid name, boy?”

Titus took a step forward.

“I am not here to argue. You have stolen my friend’s money. I want it, now.” He spoke quietly, hoping the lowered tone would convey menace.

The bigger man rose quickly, grabbed Titus by the neck of his uniform shirt and dragged him through the empty bar to a room at the back. He threw Titus against a table then walked over to a large grey safe in the far corner, unlocking the door with a key taken from a chain around his neck. Kimathi stood back, pointing to the contents of the safe.

“There is the stupid American’s money. That’s as close as you are ever going to get, boy. Now I’ll teach you to interfere in my business.”

Kimathi drew a knife from his trouser pocket, flicked open the blade and approached Titus.

“Three days ago, I walked with lions. I am no longer afraid of any man.”

Kimathi’s response was to laugh as he lunged at Titus with his blade.

Titus was unaware of his own knife until the big Kikuyan fell to the ground with the blade, one his father had used for cutting fruit, buried in his chest. Kimathi’s face held an expression of surprise until death relaxed his features.

Titus stepped back aware he had just taken an irrevocable step on a new road.

*  *  *  *  *

Punctually at seven the next morning Schuman walked into the hotel lounge.
Titus was already there.

“This is yours, my friend.” He pushed over the briefcase. “And this.” He dropped the bag of rough diamonds onto the glass-topped table. “There was some difficulty so I have taken a modest fee. I trust you will not mind. I must go to my work now.”

Titus rose, shook the hand of the astounded, open-jawed American and left.

Schuman watched the departing figure of the young African with incredulity. He shook his head and, picking up the briefcase and bag of diamonds, quietly repeated to himself two words.

“Simba Mtu. Simba Mtu.”

*  *  *  *  *

These events took place in the early eighties. Titus still sends uncut diamonds to his friend in Las Vegas, never less than 200 carats each, always hand-delivered by one of his brothers, always with a note signed ‘your friend’.

In sub-Saharan Africa today, no one knows the name Titus Muga.

However, law enforcement, criminal gangs, corrupt politicians, and the intelligence agencies of many countries respect and fear the implacable reputation of Simba Mtu, the Lion Man.

Copyright 2014 Eric J. Gates. All rights reserved. (Not available for Re-blogging without prior permission).

Surprise fact: did you know this story is connected to the one last week ( - can you figure out how?

Hey, if you like the stories, let me know in the comments...

If you don't, why did you read this far?

Is there anyone out there?

Have a great Summer, everyone.

If you would like to read more of my writing, there are 6 (shortly to be 7) full-length suspense thrillers available on Amazon. Details of these novels, with global Amazon links and extracts here: 

5 Star
 'Suspense Thrillers with a touch of Strange'
from Eric J. Gates

watch for
Sept 2014

Follow Thriller Writer Eric J. Gates on Twitter: 

Eric @

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Sniper

An escort mission; just a regular job for Vale and Turner. Provide security for a spook at a meeting in the north. Then everything went wrong… 

(short story - PG-13)

The lead soldier saw it first.

He raised a hand, halting the advance of the rest of his squad. He looked back quickly, assuring himself that his mates had seen and obeyed his signal. His eyes traversed again to the object that drew his attention: a large off-white plastic bottle half buried at the side of the road. This was his second tour and it wasn’t his first IED. He looked over at the opposite side of the road; another one, another plastic container sticking up out of the dirt. They had been lucky; maybe the wind had blown away the topsoil disclosing the deadly packages. No radios now; not this close. He called back to the Sergeant, carefully pointing out the explosive devices.

The Sergeant in turn ordered his radioman, bringing up the rear of the patrol, to back off at least ten feet then make a call for the Bomb Disposal lads.

The squad sat on the road, exposed and sweating, for over an hour before the deep rumble of an armoured vehicle heralded the experts’ arrival. They waited as two of the newcomers, suited up like brown Michelin men, approached the two plastic containers.

They were still six feet shy when the explosion happened.

In the armoured personnel carrier the remaining Bomb Disposal team member watched impotently as their mates, and all the squaddies, were engulfed in a deadly, dark, cloud of dirt.

“It was a trap! They were after us!” The youngest addition to the team voiced the obvious.

No one answered.

They waited a full fifteen minutes, allowing the dust to settle, searching with their eyes and their hearts for any sign of life from the bodies strewn across the road not fifteen yards in front of their metal cocoon. No incoming fire either. This had not been a remote detonation; probably pressure plates. They cracked open the APC’s doors and descended. They split into two groups, moving slowly forward toward the carnage.

The third device made its presence known.

Big-Bang Charlie had struck again. This time a full squad and a complete Bomb Disposal unit had been taken out by the IED-maker who had plagued the Helmand province for the last four months.

No one knew who Charlie was, but he obviously had some serious experience with explosives. Many, back at Camp Bastion, suspected he was ex-military; probably not a local, but some mercenary they had bought in. Whoever he was, he was now the top Tango for the sniper teams.

*  *  *  *  *

Joe Vale and Lewis Turner had not worked together before. Turner was a spotter whose previous partner had finished his tour and returned to the UK. Vale preferred to work alone, yet he was no fool.  He accepted the imposition of Turner without protest; they were going deep into Taliban territory and he needed all the eyes he could get to watch for threats as he squinted through his scope.

They had been dropped at night by a Merlin chopper several miles short of Delaram. A long trek followed, back to the western edge of Helmand Province. They found a good spot overlooking the stretch of road where intelligence had suggested Big-Bang Charlie was operating and dug-in. Two days of searing heat, followed by their respective nights with temperature figures in single digits, had put the men’s resolve to the test. Day three brought a change.

“Over there. Tango at eleven o’clock. No wait, it’s two.” Lewis lowered the binoculars and turned his head toward Vale. “These guys look bigger than the locals.”

“Bigger?” whispered Vale as he inched forward toward his L115A3 rifle.

“You know; bulkier. Most of the locals are pretty scrawny. These two look foreign. They’re wearing local gear but there’s something about how they move. They’re both carrying cardboard boxes; I can’t see what’s in ‘em.”

Vale reached the rifle and raised it slowly, peering through the Schmidt and Bender scope. He had it set on twenty-five power magnification. Vale watched the two ‘Afghans’ as they approached the road, over three-quarters of a mile away at the limit of his weapon’s effective range. He had made shots at much greater distances, but their orders were to ensure a kill this time.

The two strangers were dressed in kameez long shirts and lungee headgear, not unlike every other male in this country. They both sported beards, yet these were not the profuse growths of the locals; these were neatly tonsured, a western influence unheard of in local tribesmen.

“I reckon it’s him.” Vale’s statement was a wisp on the hot air inside their hide.

“But there’s two of ‘em, Joe. Which is he?”

“Both are definitely not Afghans.” He made a minute adjustment to his scope. “They’re taking out plastic water bottles. It’s them! Charlie and his friend. I’m going to take the shot.” He looked at his targets, weighing up the men’s appearance. “The one on the left looks older. I reckon that’s Charlie. First shot for him, then I’ll do the other.”

Vale moved his feet slightly, spreading them further apart to steady his aim. He grabbed the rifle’s rear support with his left hand, holding it firmly against his shoulder. Lewis called off distance and wind, and he made the adjustments on the scope. Ready. Safety off. He worked the bolt and slid an 8.59 calibre round into the chamber. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then slipped his thumb through the hole in the stock. His index finger rested lightly against the trigger.

The suppressor flattened the crack of the first shot.

Through his scope, as he worked the bolt again, Vale could see the large bullet tear into his target’s head. As the body dropped, something the man had been handling fell to the ground. An explosion raised a large dust cloud. Vale had lost the second target.

He waited, patiently seeking another kill, but when the dust settled, the other man had vanished.

*  *  *  *  *

Four month’s passed before Charlie struck again. This time it was a huge truck bomb driven against a hail of bullets into an American base to the south. The casualties, the media blowback, brought more pressure onto the UK’s Intelligence Services to put an end to Big-Bang Charlie once and for all. The presence of spooks in Camp Bastion tripled.

One of these, a thin taciturn man who went by the name of Smith, summoned Vale and Turner to their Captain’s office.

“I’ve got a lead on Charlie. There’s a meet up north, near the border. You two will be my escort.”

Vale protested, citing they were a sniper team not baby-sitters. Their Captain just shrugged, deferring to the man from the Secret Intelligence Service. It was a done deal.

The next evening Vale and Turner, together with Smith and an Afghan translator called Kakar, shared the long journey in a Merlin chopper to the north. The Merlin was a big bird, yet carried just the four passenger and a Jackal 4x4, as well as two large fuel bladders, in its hold. They landed at the foot of the Paropamisus Mountains in the deepest blackness.

Quickly they unloaded the Jackal and climbed aboard; Kakar driving, the spook alongside and the two soldiers behind, their SA80A2 carbines scanning what little they could see of the surrounding terrain, searching for danger. They drove for several hours in silence, guided by Smith and the GPS unit he carried. Finally the SIS man told Kakar to stop; they would proceed on foot from here.

Smith led the single file group into the darkness. He was still following the directions on his navigator. Finally, he raised a closed fist. The other three men joined him and formed a huddle, weapons facing outward.

Ten minutes passed.

From the gloom, a voice reached them. It spoke Pashto and Kakar responded, translating Smith’s response to the challenge.

Suddenly, strong flashlight beams highlighted the group. Vale and Turner tensed, raising their weapons. Smith placed a hand on top of Vale’s SA80 and pushed it gently down. He nodded to Kakar, who addressed the blackness behind the lights.

Men rushed in, surrounding Smith’s group. All pointed their weapons at the two soldiers. Hands reached forward to relieve them of their SA80s and sidearms. Vale and Turner were held firmly and forced to follow Smith and the translator as they were led into the night.

They were taken to a small village of deserted streets and single storey dwellings. Light emanated from one of these; the only evidence of habitation for miles. Inside, the building consisted of three rooms. Vale and Turner were left in one, told to sit and wait. Smith and his translator disappeared into the largest room.

Vale could clearly hear the voices in that room. He recognised Smith’s voice, now speaking in English, and heard him start a conversation with another man. The visitor was not Afghan; he spoke English too, but with an accent that marked Eastern European origins.

“Mr Almatov, I have complied with my side of our bargain. These are the men you seek, the ones that killed your brother, Jamshid. Now, do you have the information you promised?”

Before replying, the newcomer walked to the doorway of the room housing the British soldiers and peered in. Vale saw a familiar face; one last seen through the scope of his rifle months ago.

“Which is the shooter?” The voice gruff, impatient.

“The shorter one. Vale. The other is the spotter, Turner.” Smith’s voice from the other room.

“Good.” The bulky figure took one last look at the soldiers and turned back to Smith. “Here are the details of the al-Qaeda training camps in the north. There are five camps. Some may be empty, others will be in use. What about my payment?”

“We transferred the money to the account a couple of hours ago. It should be there by now.”

“And them?” Vale could imagine the visitor jerking a thumb at the room where he and Turner sat under the muzzles of three Kalashnikovs.

“We were attacked. We were separated.”

“And him?”

“Do what you want.”

A pause. A new voice, the translator, started to protest.

A single shot, echoing loudly in the confines of the house.

“My men will take you north to my country. There you will be left near your Embassy in Tashkent. The great hero, no?”

“All is well then. I will leave now, if you are in agreement?”

Vale exchanged glances with Turner.

“Smith? Smith? What the hell’s going…”

The big Uzbek appeared in the doorway again.

“Your colleague is no longer here. I should introduce myself. My name is Qudrat Almatov. That name will not mean anything to you, no? But you have another name for me. You call me ‘Big-Bang Charlie’, no?”

*  *  *  *  *

The beatings started a few minutes later. Initially Vale and Turner fought back, but the supply of fresh assailants seemed endless and soon both were reduced to bloody, bruised heaps in opposing corners of the room. They were stripped and tied up.

Every day their morning routine started with a beating. They were then left for a few hours, enough time for lips and eyes to swell, before the beating was renewed. Water was a tin bucket of brown swill, left just inside the door every other day and kicked over by their guards whenever they felt like it. Food: stale bread every three or four days. They lay in their own excrement. The heat in the room during the day caused both men to hallucinate; at night their shivers kept them awake. They lost track of time. They lost hope of rescue. To the outside world they were dead, their corpses left to rot in some mountain crevice.

At some moment, between the beatings and the cold nights, Turner died. His body was dragged from the room and burned outside; a new smell that made Vale’s stomach dry heave for hours, aggravating the pain in his body.

There came a moment too, shortly after the death of his friend, when Vale felt steel growing within; a new resolve. He needed clarity in his mind, his thoughts, and made this his main priority. The guards were tiring of their game; the beatings were fewer and shorter. Slowly, over days, weeks, Vale regained some of his strength. He was now a sliver of a man; gone were the hard muscles of before. He used this to his advantage. Slipping off the loosened ropes was a first step. Only two guards now, both careless.

He killed the first easily. Stunning him with the half-filled bucket, then a quick thrust with the man’s own knife. The second was more suspicious and entered, seeking his colleague, with the Kalashnikov levelled. Vale’s bloodlust won the day; his suicidal rush and incessant stabs took the life he sought.

*  *  *  *  *

Over seven months it had taken him. First an interminably slow trek north; a clandestine crossing into Turkmenistan; food, water, clothing stolen as needed. His body recovered; one thought dragged him through the days. Then another long journey, this time to a port on the Caspian Sea. A series of unsavoury jobs for local gangsters gave him the financial means to put his plan into action. The next leg was an oil freighter, destination Europe.

Finding Smith was much easier than he could have hoped in his wildest dreams. The man, real name Malcolm Sunderland, had returned home a hero. Captured on a secret mission, he had escaped, making his way back home with intelligence vital to the war against terror. He had left the SIS; announced his entry into politics. Now a firm candidate for Defence Minister, should his party win the upcoming elections, his face was prominently displayed on hoardings around the country; the slogan – ‘a Hero’s Party’.

Sourcing the weapon had been more difficult. Vale used almost all the cash he had to buy the rifle and ammunition from one of the London gangs. He spent a full two days stripping the gun and suppressor, attending to each piece as though it were a long-lost child. He did the same with the ammunition and the five-round magazine. The scope was not an S&B, but as good as he could get for his money. Furtive shots fired in remote locations served to zero-in the scope and test the rifle.

This was the last public meeting before the elections. Smith… Sunderland was to speak.

Vale found his perch two full days before. He had a clear view of the podium, built on the edge of a public park with tall skyscrapers as a backdrop. Over on the other side of the park, three streets in, Vale had found a rooftop.

Somewhere in his one-track mind a thought sprouted and grew.

He bought a burner phone and made a call.

With Sunderland on the other end of the line, his voice refused to function.

“Who is this? Hello?”

“It’s me. Vale. The soldier you traded back in Afghanistan.”

“What the f..?”

“Listen, Smith… Sunderland. You have one opportunity. I don’t know why I’m giving you this. Maybe it’s for Lewis Turner. I don’t know; I don’t care. On Tuesday, when you speak in the park, announce your withdrawal. Tell everyone what you did to Turner and me. Then I’ll let you live. Do anything else; you’ll die that day.” He hung up before Sunderland could reply.

He bought a cheap radio and tuned it to a station that was going to broadcast the speeches from the park. A plastic earpiece connected its commentary to his expectant ear underneath the grey tarpaulin that hid his body from the police helicopters flying overhead.

The discourses started.

Introductions were made.

People rose, spoke, received applause, sat.

Finally, Sunderland approached the microphone.

Vale actioned the bolt of the rifle.

He listened to Turner’s wind and distance calculations in his mind; made small adjustments on the scope. The rear support gripped and held against his shoulder; his right thumb threaded through the hole in the stock. Safety off. An index finger caressed the trigger.

A single shot sounded.

Echoing off tall buildings, hiding its origins.

People ducked, aware of the sound and what it meant.

*  *  *  *  *

Feet pounded on the concrete stairs. Black-garbed figures erupted onto the rooftop. Assault weapons were pointed; every square foot was searched before their leader used his radio.

“Confirmed. One down. Head shot. No one else present.”

On a distant roof, a police sniper keyed his microphone.

“Copy that. One down. No further targets.”

Copyright 2013 Eric J. Gates. All rights reserved. (Not available for Re-blogging without prior permission).

Thought you might like a change from the usual blog contents.

Have a great Summer, everyone.

If you would like to read more of my writing, there are 6 (shortly to be 7) full-length suspense thrillers available on Amazon. Details of these novels, with global Amazon links and extracts here: 

5 Star
 'Suspense Thrillers with a touch of Strange'
from Eric J. Gates

watch for
Sept 2014

Follow Thriller Writer Eric J. Gates on Twitter: 

Eric @