“Stop there!” I heard a voice behind me in heavily accented English. I turned to find a young man. I looked at him. He looked at me. He was also looking into the trees, he had a lazy eye. The gun he held however was pointed at my chest. “Who are you and what are you doing?” he asked menacingly. I knew that answering truthfully would probably be my undoing. I had to think, and fast. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get out of this. Yet somehow I found a way.
I won’t start this tale by telling you how I got away, that part is kind of hard to believe. But it did happen; you can trust me on that, I’ll get back to it later. My story instead begins about six months before that happened. I had been working for James for over two years and by all accounts I was moderately successful. I had become an indispensable part of his little crew, still very much in a support capacity. I still acted as the chef most of the time, I had even started to develop some skills in that direction, I no longer made inedible slop, it was slightly edible slop which for field work is about as good as it gets. The regular conversations I had had with Billy had paid off over the course of the two years I was having those little chats with him. I was now capable of piloting the boat along the more sedate parts of the river while Billy stay in Leopoldville arranging things for us there. This added skill meant that I was getting more of a fair share from every job we did. It wasn’t steak for every meal and whiskey older than I was to wash it down but I was very very comfortable. That is not to say that I still didn’t have issues with what these guys were doing, I did, but the money went a long way towards silencing my qualms on that front.
James was always on the look out for new jobs and new methods that we could apply to accomplish them. I was in the wheel house of the river boat preparing to set off after another completed job when James stuck his head in and asked me “Hey Enrique! How do you feel about flying?” I was a bit caught out by that but could only respond with “I don’t know boss! I have never been in one of those things.” James put his hand on my shoulder “You’ll get used to it! I have a new idea.”
If I had any idea what he had been thinking I would have ran in the opposite direction as fast as my little lanky legs could take me! It seems that James was of the opinion that he was missing out on most of the vast wealth of the Congo rainforest because he was restricted to traveling by boat. Air; he thought, would provide access to all of the little hidden places in the jungle. Since Billy was already nearly fully occupied with holding the fort in Leopoldville I was as good an option to be trained as he could find. By the time I realized what was happening I was too far gone to turn back.
Flight training was provided in a small airstrip an few miles out of the city. The trainer was an old and grizzled American and he taught me on an old and grizzled trainer. Jeff; as he liked to be called, wasn’t a big believer in “theory” based training. He much preferred taking a total greenhorn high up into the air and then taking his hands off the controls. “The higher the better!” He told me once, mid panic “Means that if you fuck up I have a chance to level her off again before we hit the ground!” Then adding “Most of the time” with a slap on my back that nearly sent us into a tail-spin.
I somehow found over the course of two months that I developed what might be conceivably called flying skills, I was able to find my way to and from the airstrip outside the city out across the expanse of forest using a mixture of dead reckoning and hastily consulted maps. I wasn’t expected to go too far, a few hours at most would bring me to the furthest possible distance that James would ever conceivably need me to travel.
It was only a few short days after Jeff told me “I think you finally figured this crap out!” when I arrived at the airstrip to find a considerably larger plane there than the little trainer I was used to. A large white star and the words “US ARMY” had been imperfectly painted over on the sides. The plane, like many of the equipment we used, was war surplus. James; who had driven me out that morning said to me “Beautiful isn’t she? Say hello to our new air arm. Now there is nothing we won’t be able to do.”
James wasn’t in too much of hurry to get started. They gave me a whole two days to get familiar with the aircraft. This I found to be a much more frightening experience than I had found with my first flying lessons with Jeff. The first time I went up I noticed an annoying whistling sound coming from somewhere behind me in flight. It was only on the ground later that I noticed the bullet holes in the fuselage, the painted masking tape having blown away while in the air. There was also a reddish brown stain on the floor of the cabin near one of the holes. Whatever it was I did not want to pry around further.
The eventual operation that James had worked for me and our new plane was simplicity itself. I would fly in as close as possible to the place that we needed to do the job and then either land where that was possible (you’d be surprised how many little airfields people had cut out of the forest over the years.) of if the guys were feeling particularly lucky, I would fly over and they would jump out of the plane and parachute down to their target. Most of them were experienced with that kind of thing so there wasn’t much of a problem with that. And when the lads were finished they would either move out to the nearest airfield or get the company men who had come to set up their mine or start logging to bulldoze one for us. Then I would simply fly back in and pick them up. It meant that I got to spend a lot more time in Leopoldville, which suited me grand, I appreciated creature comforts a lot more after so long in the little cabin and galley of James’ river boat.
Over the following months our operation expanded our list of clients and I transported our little band further into the deep forest. It was only inevitable, given our rapid growth, that we would eventually step on someone else’s toes.
The first sign of trouble was when we were all back in our hotel base of operations after a weeks excursion out in the forest. There was a thump on the door and a large man forced his way inside. Usually, visitors would take one look at the impressive collection of mean looking weapons and equally mean looking men tending them and they beat a quick and nervous retreat. This man had no such qualms, he was obviously well used to weapons.
He demanded to see James and when shown to the bosses small office slammed the door behind him. We could hear some a strong exchange of words followed by muffled shouting after which the man exited with some speed. He barraged out through us, ignoring stares that would have terrified the average man off the street. James never explained what exactly it was that the man had come to talk to him about. However he did ask the lads to be extra careful on the next few jobs.
A month passed and mostly we had forgotten about the man being so busy and all. We had been called in to clear out a village over a particularly rich diamond mine. The mining company had thoughtfully cut an airstrip into the forest only six miles from the site so no parachuting was necessary and all I would need to do was wait and maybe do a little cooking. So far so run of the mill.
We landed a little after nine in the morning and the lads set off long the little trail that the maps said led to the village. While they were waiting I started setting up a small camp to cook the lunch. The was also a portable radio that could receive the BBC world service and in a pinch could be used to summon help. I kept it tuned on some nice jazz as I began getting everything arranged to start cooking.
As I lit the flames in a large pot to start heating the oil I heard the all too familiar popping of gunfire from the approximate direction of the village. I barely even noticed it now apart from in a professional time-keeping capacity. I drowned it out and started to chop up five giant onions as a base for soup.
Twenty minutes later, as I listened to the onions sizzling in the pot I remarked to myself that they seemed to be popping more than usual. It was only then that I realised that it wasn’t the onions but the gunfire that was still going on. That was very unusual; mostly they were finished in a couple of minutes with the possible exception of the odd rattle of intimidation fire. I figured that something was going on so I went to the radio and switched it back to the frequencies that we were using to talk to each other. I was greeted by a piece of hell.
“Gunther has disappeared and it looks like like nine of us have definitely bought the farm” James screamed over the radio, partially drowned out by the sound of gunfire. Billy’s calm voice could be heard on the other side asking questions about the men’s deployment over the sound of maps being thrown about. In a short period of time it became clear that James and the rest of my colleagues had walked right into a trap. There were no simple farmers and country folk here, rather heavily armed militia or troops, neither of which we were prepared for.
From the sound of it, James and the rest of the lads were pinned against a stone wall and were using up their ammunition trying to prevent themselves being flanked. Billy was discussing ways out when he announced that there was loud knocking at the door. There was a lull at James’ end and it lasted long enough for us to hear a loud thump followed by several gunshots. Billy’s radio then stopped transmitting.
In a mixture of panic and grief I shouted down the microphone, pleading for Billy to answer back. Only James heard me. “Is that you Enrique? Thank fuck! Listen to me. I want you to get in that plane and get it pointed down the runway with the engines running. I think Billy figured out a way for me and a few others to get out of this shit and back to you. When you are ready to go I want you to wait for ten minutes and if we don’t show or someone else does I want you to take off and get the hell out of here. do you understand?”
I answered in the affirmative and immediately headed over to the plane when I was stopped by the gunman with the lazy eye. Just how I made it out with my skin intact is just another of the little tricks I have learned hanging out with so many ‘interesting’ individuals. The gunman may have been armed but he was young, younger than I was at the time and very, very nervous. I had been thought a way to exploit that.
Gunther had told me, during one nighttime sail down the Congo, that he had very nearly been captured during the war. “After one bloody battle; when all seemed lost” he said “A friend and I set off across the desert in search of others who we could try and escape with. But we were found” They were American G.I.s, fresh off the boat and as wet as winter compared to British Gunther had been fighting the last two years.
“I looked at them Enrique” Gunther told me “and I knew they would not shoot me, It was not in them yet, they still had to think” Gunther and his friend rushed them, faster then the Americans could react and got the upper hand. It was risky Gunther told me “If it was a veteran Tommy I would not have tried it. He would have shot me without thinking. But when they are new; you might as well take a chance.”
I saw that same uncertainty in the eyes of this gunman. I think he might have been more frightened than I was. Too scared to think properly. I tried my luck. With my hands still in the air I started to run towards him. The fear in his eyes turned to terror and I could see the gun shift in his hands as he forgot that it was there. Lowering my head I smashed into him and rugby-tackled him to the ground. Grabbing the gun from his hands I lifted the stock and dropped it hard down on his head. He was out cold.
Flushed with adrenaline I trotted up into the plane and went through the checks faster than even Jeff would have thought safe. I throttled up the engines and swung her on her axis to face back down the tree-lined runway and there I waited.
I didn’t have long. I caught movement between the trees and a jeep burst out from the trail, tearing up the ground in my direction. Whatever hope I had were immediately dashed by the realisation that they were not my friends and what relief I felt was replaced with fear as I saw the small arsenal of weapons pointed in the plane’s direction.
So I throttled up the engines, their loud drone accompanied by clangs of bullets ricocheting off the metal hull. The little jeep tried to keep up with me but I quickly left them behind and soared into the sky.
Now safely in the air I put some serious thought into where I should now go. James and his Gang most likely did not make it so it would have been foolhardy to stay close to the airstrip. However Billy’s apparent demise meant that Leopoldville was now a likely fool’s errand also. This was unfortunate since I had left most of my money and all of my clothes there. But lady luck had favoured me once that day, I would have been pushing it asking her again so soon.
Thinking fast I put the still rising sun to my left and set a course to the south. With little on me and a plane rapidly using up fuel over unfamiliar territory I found myself once again adrift in the sea of fate. Where I would end up from there, well that dear reader is for the next part of my story.