PART ONE – The Crystal Mountain
There were no stars that night on the bush airstrip, nor any moon; just the West African darkness wrapping round the scattered groups like warm, wet velvet. The cloud cover was lying hardly off the tops of the iroko trees, and the waiting men prayed it would stay a while longer to shield them from the bombers.
At the end of the runway the battered old DC-4, which had just slipped in for a landing by runway lights that stayed alight for just the last fifteen seconds of final approach, turned and coughed its way blindly toward the palm-thatch huts.
Between two of them, five white men sat crouched in a Land Rover and stared toward the incoming aircraft. They said nothing, but the same thought was in each man’s mind. If they did not get out of the battered and crumbling enclave before the forces of the central government overran the last few square miles, they would not get out alive. Each man had a price on his head and intended to see that no man collected it. They were the last of the mercenaries who had fought on contract for the side that had lost. Now it was time to go. So they watched the incoming and unexpected cargo plane with silent attention.
A Federal MIG-17 night fighter, probably flown by one of the six East German pilots sent down over the past three months to replace the Egyptians, who had a horror of flying at night, moaned across the sky to the west. It was out of sight above the cloud layers.
The pilot of the taxiing DC-4, unable to hear the scream of the jet above him, flicked on his own lights to see where he was going, and from the darkness a voice cried uselessly, “Kill de lights!” When the pilot had got his bearings, he turned them off anyway, and the fighter above was miles away. To the south there was a rumble of artillery where the front had finally crumbled as men who had had neither food nor bullets for two months threw down their guns and headed
for the protecting bush forest.
The pilot of the DC-4 brought his plane to a halt twenty yards from the Superconstellation already parked on the apron, killed the engines, and climbed down to the concrete. An African ran over to him and there was a muttered conversation. The two men walked through the dark toward one of the larger groups of men, a blob of black against the darkness of the palm forest. The group parted as the two from the tarmac approached, until the white man who had flown in the DC-4 was face to face with the one who stood in the center. The white man had never seen him before, but he knew of him, and, even in the darkness dimly illumined by a few cigarettes, he could recognize the man he had come to see.
The pilot wore no cap, so instead of saluting he inclined his head slightly. He had never done that before, not to a black, and could not have explained why he did it.
“My name is Captain Van Cleef,” he said in English accented in the Afrikaner manner.
The African nodded his acknowledgment, his bushy black beard brushing the front of his striped camouflage uniform as he did so.
“It’s a hazardous night for flying, Captain Van Cleef,” he remarked dryly, “and a little late for more supplies.”
His voice was deep and slow, the accent more like that of an English public-school man, which he was, than like an African. Van Cleef felt uncomfortable and again, as a hundred times during his run through the cloudbanks from the coast, asked himself why he had come.
“I didn’t bring any supplies, sir. There weren’t any more to bring.”
Another precedent set.