ESCAPE ARTIST (Chapter 1)
Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
March 16, 2007
A fourth explosion ripped the night, sending off a brilliant flash that was followed by a barrage of bullets. Slipping from the side of the house toward the east stockade wall, Robin Monarch moved away from the explosion and the shots, hyperaware of the hundreds of armed soldiers around him in the pitch-dark compound.
A woman's voice came over the radio disguised as a hearing aid in Monarch's left ear.
"Slattery says well done, Rogue," she said. "The both of you."
"That was the easy part," Monarch muttered. "Now to get the hell out of here."
Twelve hours before...
The rain forest steamed. The red-dirt road, if you could call it that, was greasy slick where it wasn't potholed or washed out altogether. Making matters stranger, there was some kind of frog migration occurring.
Monarch had encountered hundreds of them as he drove north, heading toward some of the remotest, wildest terrain left on the African continent.
"You're almost to the coordinates," Gloria Barnett said through the earbud.
A tall, ruggedly built man in his thirties, Monarch replied, "Sure feels like it. Road's getting worse by the yard."
"I still say you should have gone in there with Tats," Barnett said.
"This kind of thing is best done alone."
"You are not alone," Barnett replied firmly. "We're just not there with you."
Monarch knew better than to argue with--in his opinion--the best operations runner at the Central Intelligence Agency. Plus it was true that as long as he maintained communications, she and the rest of his team across the border in Rwanda could support him through just about--
A silhouetted figure carrying a machine gun appeared on the road.
"Here we go," Monarch said, as he rolled down the windows and slowed to a stop. He turned off the engine. Thirty or more figures surged out from the jungle on either side of the route.
Every one of them carried a weapon, mostly knockoff AK-47s, which they trained on Monarch. Over sweaty jet skin they wore faded fatigues, tattered shirts, and ragged shorts. Some sported filthy baseball caps with basketball logos, wearing them cockeyed, like rappers. They looked gaunt and battle-hardened, but the oldest of them couldn't have been more than seventeen.
Someone yanked open the passenger door. Monarch was aware of a rifle barrel close to his head now, but kept his eyes focused on the oldest boy, the leader, who strode toward him furiously, cheek welded to his gunstock.
"Put hands on your head," he barked.
In his head, Monarch heard his mother say, "Sometimes the greatest strength is acting weak."
This was not long before she was murdered. She was teaching her then twelve-year-old son about the intricacies of con games, and how crucial it was for the marks to believe that they had the upper hand in all phases of a swindle, so that they willingly handed over their money.
Monarch did as he was told.
The lead boy jerked the driver's side door open. "Get out."
Again, Monarch did as he was told, acting as if he'd never had a gun pointed anywhere near him. He glanced at the boys searching his gear, rifling through a duffel bag, and the knapsack that held his camera. Other boys were trying to pry open the locks of the metal case in the back.
"Tell them to stop messing with the case or they'll ruin my instruments," Monarch complained as two boys came in to search him.
The friskers grabbed his U.S. passport and the documents that identified him as Robin Monarch, a mineralogist from the University of Chicago, and stepped back.
"Unlock the case," the lead boy said.
"This kind of humidity could screw up the electronics," Monarch said, then tapped his ear. "It's already screwing with my hearing aid."
"I don't care," the boy said. "Unlock it or we leave you here."
Monarch made a show of sighing. "Can I reach for the key?"
The lead boy's gun was inches from Monarch's face when he nodded.
Monarch fished out the key, which was on a lanyard around his neck, pivoted, and held his hand out to the two still trying to bust the locks. The lead boy said something sharply in a local dialect. The other boys angrily thrust the case at him.
Monarch twisted a dial, heard a faint puff at the relief of the case's inner pressure, and then fit the key in the locks. He unsnapped them, opened the lid, revealing the thickness of the case walls, and dense anti-shock foam that cradled probes, a camera that looked like a nozzle with a bug-eye on the front, various sensing devices, and a notebook computer.
The lead boy pried up the foam at one corner, and was about to pick up another, when Monarch said, "Longer you take, the greater danger to the instruments. No instruments, no bid. I don't think that's what Lieutenant Zed would want, do you?"
The lead boy snarled, "You know nothing of the Lieutenant."
"We were told to bring whatever test equipment we wanted. Is that not so?"
The boy soldier hesitated, but then said, "Seal it."
Monarch did just that as Barnett said into his earbud, "Nicely done."
Built into the walls of the case were ultra-slim lithium batteries and into the handle a transmitter that would boost any signal Monarch or the instruments might send once they got in deep. Once he snapped shut the latches, the system was triggered.
"Much stronger feed now," Barnett commented. "You might wipe the lens at some point, we're getting condensation."
Ignoring the camera pen sticking out the pocket of his safari-style green shirt, Monarch grabbed his knapsack, held out the case toward the lead boy. "Makes you feel any better, you can carry it."
The boy looked annoyed, dug out a cell phone, turned, and made a call. The middle of wildest Africa and the cell phones still worked. Amazing.
When he'd finished, he said, "Get in your car. Drive forward. The others are waiting."
Monarch put the case in the passenger seat and drove over the rise. Two hundred yards farther on, two Toyota Land Cruisers and a Land Rover similar to his own were parked where the road became a path that crossed a clearing and disappeared into the jungle. He pulled in beside them just as an old construction helicopter swept in from the north, landed in the clearing, and the rotor died.
Monarch climbed out. So did men in each of the trucks. The closest was Chinese, late forties, carrying two steel cases. An Indian, younger, wearing sunglasses and plain green safari-style clothes, was next. He had shockproof luggage as well. An Orthodox Jewish man who looked absolutely miserable got out of the farthest vehicle, lugging what easily could have been mistaken for a gun case.
"This is totally unnecessary," he grumbled. He was bald and sweat began to stream out from under his yarmulke. "Why could this not be brought to us in an air-conditioned city?"
"Lieutenant Zed cannot leave the compound," the lead boy soldier replied. "So you come. You will be back here before dark."
Monarch acted subservient to all of them, said nothing, and followed them to the helicopter.
They strapped themselves into jump seats inside the copter while Monarch stayed on his feet and introduced himself as Monarch, from Chicago. The others reluctantly replied. Bergenheim hailed from Antwerp. Chatterjee had flown in from Surat, India. Sing called Hong Kong home.
"And what's your name?" Monarch asked the oldest boy soldier, who stood at the door, holding on to a strap.
"Why do you care?"
"I don't like just calling you 'lead boy.'"
Monarch caught the faintest of smiles.
"Lieutenant Zed calls me Gahji," the boy said. "It means 'the hunter.' I am good at tracking in the bush."
"What tribe?" Chatterjee asked.
"Tribes no longer matter," Gahji said.
"That what Lieutenant Zed believes?" Monarch asked.
"It's what all of us believe," Gahji said before the helicopter engine started up and the rotors began to turn, making a clanking noise that clearly unnerved everyone on board the craft. Monarch glanced into the cockpit and saw that the pilot looked ridiculously young.
But Monarch forced his mind off it, yelling: "So what's with the frogs? They're everywhere."
Gahji shrugged, said, "Mating season. What is that tattoo?"
The entire chopper had begun to vibrate as it struggled to lift off. Monarch had grabbed one of the safety straps, revealing a tattoo on his inner right forearm. The letters FDL were laid out in scrollwork, with a hand coming off the D, the fingers about to pluck something.
"The initials of my first love," Monarch said. "Almost broke my heart."
They rose and swung away from the road, and the clanking eased. Quickly they were above the jungle canopy, flying north.
"Volcano," Gahji said, pointing out the other side of the helicopter.
Monarch used the straps to cross, looked where the boy soldier was pointing, and saw a huge smoking volcano with a massive slag-colored lava field stretching through the jungle to the south. More volcanoes, dormant, were visible to the north.
"When was the last time that went off?" Monarch asked.
Gahji shrugged, said, "This one goes off many times. Last year?"
Bergenheim, sitting nearest to them, asked, "How long have you been with Lieutenant Zed, Gahji?"
"Thirteen years. When I was four, he saved my life during the fighting that killed my parents."
Monarch saw fathomless depth in the boy's eyes. Gahji's story unnerved him, made him think of himself at that age, still fighting for his place in life back in the squalid slums of Buenos Aires.
"Someone saved my life like that when I was thirteen, soon after my parents were murdered," Monarch said.
Gahji looked at Monarch suspiciously, said nothing. He turned away from the volcano and looked to the north into hilly terrain choked by jungle. Something about the way the boy soldier held his head so defiantly led Monarch to think back to those long-ago days.
The eighteen-year-old Robin, no longer the awkward and lanky kid he'd been at sixteen, had filled out and was just coming into his strength. But that day he was tired and in a bad mood as he and his closest friend, Claudio, headed back through the streets of the Villa Miserie, the Village of Misery. This was the slum where he'd ended up, in the wake of his parents' murder. Four years before, Claudio had saved him from the garbage heap, recruiting him to a gang, La Fraternidad de Ladrones, the Brotherhood of Thieves.
During those four years, in situations where the odds had been heavily stacked against him, Robin had managed repeatedly to steal valuable items for La Fraternidad. Which was contributing to his bad mood.
"I am the best thief, Claudio," Robin complained.
"Of that there is no doubt, my brother," said Claudio, older by two years, and already thickening through his middle. He stopped, gestured to a red gate set in a high wall. "I like this red, like cow's blood, don't you think?"
Claudio was a thief of the highest order, a talented safecracker, and the Brotherhood's part-time fence. But he dreamed of being an artist, a painter, and was obsessed by the various shades and hues he saw all around him.
"It's an interesting red," Robin allowed. "But I was talking about Julio."
"Were you?" Claudio said. "I thought you were talking of being the best thief."
"Julio takes more than half of what I steal for himself," Robin complained.
"That is the deal," Claudio reminded him. "You share with those above you."
"I see too much of it going to Julio. If I am to take risks, I want to be paid."
Claudio scratched at his sparse beard and grinned. "You will be a rich man someday, I think."
"Men who think for themselves become rich. My father taught me that."
"Your father was a cat burglar," Claudio said skeptically.
"And a good one," Robin shot back.
"Thought we were talking about Julio," Claudio said, walking again.
"I am talking about Julio," Robin insisted. "He doesn't think, sometimes. He makes mistakes."
"That was two years ago."
"He still drinks too much, talks too much. And he gets crazy around girls."
A squealing piglet ran by them. A little girl went running after the pig.
"Julio is still Julio," Claudio said firmly. "He still leads. The Brothers support him without question."
After several moments, Robin said, "He suspects us, I think."
"What, that we let the girl go?" Claudio said. "Or that we stole the ransom for ourselves when he was blind drunk?"
"I haven't said anything to anyone. I haven't spent any of the money."
"I haven't either," Robin said. "But the way he looks at us, even when we have done a great thing, and especially when he has been drinking rum..."
"Be careful what you imagine, brother," Claudio said as they came within sight of the ramshackle building that served as an informal home for the Brotherhood. "Just thinking something can make it so."
The helicopter banked, shaking Monarch from his memories. They flew across a lake in the middle of the rain forest and saw nothing except birds in the trees and cranes standing in the shallows.
"No fishermen?" Sing said, surprised.
The boy soldier shrugged. "Sometimes. But it is far to bring in a boat. We fish more on the next lake north."
They reached the far shoreline of that first lake, and then flew on over the jungle canopy. Monarch swiveled his head, trying to identify landmarks, places he could use to navigate. The line of volcanoes loomed to his east, and there were highlands to the west. Seven or eight miles on, he spotted the second lake.
"I like that first one as a possible pickup," Barnett whispered in his ear.
Twice Monarch clucked softly with his tongue to let her know he agreed.
As they got close to the second lake, Monarch saw boys fishing from dugout canoes, encampments along the shoreline where cook fires burned, and a bizarre fortress. It dominated a peninsula that jutted into the lake off its western shore, some one hundred acres in size.
Dried weeds hung from a barbed-wire fence that jutted above the water twenty yards out from shore, surrounding the entire peninsula. Hundreds of tree trunks, hatchet-sharpened at the tips, had been set and lashed upright, forming the picket walls of a primitive stockade that enclosed the entire point. Armed sentries stood along an elevated walkway on the interior wall of the stockade, a cadre of boy soldiers who watched with open menace as the helicopter passed.
Monarch did his best to film it with the camera pen by aiming his left chest so Barnett and the others could see the interior, which featured an old colonial-era plantation house gone to seed. Vines and moss grew up the exterior of the decrepit mansion. The rotting shutters were flung open, overlooking a shantytown of huts, tarp shelters, and makeshift tents.
Barnett whistled softly and, duly impressed, said, "Way different than looking at it on sat photos. Up close and personal, it's like something out of Mad Max."
When they had almost reached the spot where the peninsula met the base of a range of hills, Monarch saw the canal. Hand-dug and flooded, it featured a retractable bridge that connected the mainland to the peninsula and the front gate of the stockade.
But as they circled in for a landing, Monarch was no longer looking at the jungle fortress. He was staring far up the hillside where the vegetation had been stripped and the earth turned, as black and livid as a scabbed-over wound.
They slowed and landed. From the sound the rotors made winding down, it was a miracle they were on the ground. Thank God Monarch wasn't planning on leaving the same way he had come in.
"Is this the only way in here?" Chatterjee asked anxiously as he unbuckled his harness and made to get out.
"Or walking through more than one hundred kilometers of bush," Gahji said.
"Why do I get the feeling that you came in the second way?" Monarch asked.
"Because I did," Gahji said in a boastful tone. "We all did. Even Lieutenant Zed. If you want to be one of us, you must learn to walk before you can learn to fight. The helicopter is for supplies only. And rare visitors."
Monarch climbed out, smelling wood smoke. He could hear the jungle now: the cries of birds, the hoots of monkeys, and the thud of something heavy running through the trees. The heat was brutal, with near one hundred percent humidity, and Monarch understood he was going to have to stay hydrated, well fed, and alert if he was to complete his mission and come out of this in one piece.
More boy soldiers appeared on the ramparts to either side of the gate. Others arrived at ground level and began hauling on a rope-and-pulley system to bring the bridge across the canal.
"The bridge is kind of overkill, don't you think?" Monarch said.
Sing agreed. "That canal isn't that wide. Someone could get across fairly easy if they wanted."
"If they could get past the crocs," Gahji said as the bridge reached their side.
Whether it was the mention of crocodiles or the infernal heat, Bergenheim looked ready to faint. Chatterjee was now looking keenly at the murky canal water.
Monarch followed Gahji onto the bridge, looked down into the stinking ditch, and saw sharp prehistoric heads lying partially submerged, seven or eight of them, maybe more. The wind shifted and he smelled death. In the reeds, he caught sight of something more chilling: a shredded white shirt that looked more bloodstained than muddy.
"So the rumors might have merit," Barnett whispered.
Monarch caught Gahji watching him without expression from the other end of the bridge. The gate began to open.
It all reminded Monarch of a door opening deep in his past.
No sooner had Claudio warned Robin about imagining things than he saw the door to the Brotherhood's building swing wide.
Julio stumbled out onto the ramshackle porch at the edge of the Villa Miserie, laughing, bare-chested, one arm around Inez, a street prostitute he favored. At six foot four, Robin was now three inches taller than the twenty-something leader of La Fraternidad, but Julio still had him on raw strength, bulk, and fighting experience.
Julio's upper-body muscles were pumped and gleaming, as if he'd just done a hundred pull-ups or push-ups. With the tattoos of stalking tigers on each massive shoulder, the shaved head, and the black wraparound sunglasses, to Robin, Julio looked like a creature that was half ape and half rhino.
But Julio was no dumb animal. He'd founded the Brotherhood, and he'd crafted the eighteen rules that the members lived by.
"My brothers!" Julio cried. Robin instantly heard the slur in his voice.
My God, it wasn't even noon yet, and he'd already taken his eye off business.
Robin's late mother had always preached to him about drinking alcohol before the sun went down. "Someone who drinks during the day has no ambition," she'd say. "No real ambition."
Julio had ambitions, but he didn't like to work too hard to achieve them. He preferred other people work hard to achieve his ambitions. It made Robin's blood boil at some level, but he smiled. "Julio."
"My brother," Claudio added.
"You know this one?" Julio said to Inez, who looked as buzzed as he was in a tight dress that she threatened to spill from. "The great Robin? My thieving genius?"
Inez's eyes came lazily toward Robin. She giggled, clapped Julio's great chest, and said, "I know him, silly. All the girls in the Villa Miserie know him."
"This is true?"
"Well, they want to know him. But he no wanna know them."
Julio seemed to take great delight in that. "What do they think? The girls?"
"Maricón," Inez sniffed. "He must like boys like Claudio."
"He just don't like skanks," Claudio shot back. "Neither do I."
The whore erupted from her haze. "Inez is no skank!" She looked at Julio. "Do something."
"Why?" Julio said, taking his arm from around her neck, and turning indifferent, even scornful. "He tells the truth. Now go away. We have business."
Inez glared at Julio, spit at Claudio's feet. Robin ignored her completely, focused on Julio, who laughed softly as she walked away. "You have such a way with the chicas, Claudio."
"I try," Claudio said.
"You score last night?" Julio asked, taking a seat on the sagging front porch, and setting the rum bottle beside him.
Claudio started to answer, but Robin said, "I got inside, found the cash--U.S. dollars, more than you said, eight hundred--but only three of those gold coins."
"Three?" That surprised Julio, who lifted his sunglasses, revealing bloodshot eyes that were sharply focused. "There were supposed to be like ten, fifteen."
Robin met Julio's eyes. "Eight hundred dollars, three coins."
He reached inside his shirt, handed over an envelope containing sixteen U.S. fifty-dollar bills. Claudio hesitated, but then dug in his pocket and came up with three gold Argentine five-peso coins dated 1893.
Julio stuffed the envelope in his back pocket, and inspected the coins. "They only made these for like fifteen years."
Julio put his sunglasses back on and looked at Robin. "Too bad there were only three."
Robin shrugged, said, "Our cut?"
After a pause, Julio said, "Tonight. With the others."
"Give us an advance so we can go eat like kings," Claudio said.
Julio paused, then reached into his pocket and counted out peso bills, which Robin took. "That comes off your take," Julio warned.
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Robin said, trying not to sound harsh.
If Julio noticed he did not react, said, "I've got to get some sleep. That Inez wore me out."
"We'll see you later, jefe," Claudio said.
"Count on it," Julio said, taking his rum bottle and going back inside.
When they were several hundred yards away, Claudio said, "I think we are crazy. You especially are crazy."
"Just looking out for our interests," Robin said. "Where are the other seven?"
Claudio patted his pocket nervously, said, "'Rule number eighteen: Make good on promises given to other thieves.' If Julio finds out we broke--"
Monarch followed Gahji through the gate of the fortress in the jungle, felt the eyes of all the boy soldiers inside the stockade, looking at them from under tarps and lean-tos as they ate from bowls of rice and sauce or worked oil into their weapons.
"How many follow the Lieutenant?" Chatterjee asked.
"More than one thousand now," Gahji replied proudly. "But they are not all here. Many are in camps back in the hills, training. Others are working."
They neared the old plantation house. A big wiry man appeared on the dilapidated front porch. He was coal-colored with splotches of pink on his face, arms, and scalp, a piebald man in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing reflector sunglasses and camouflage fatigues. All around the encampment the boy soldiers sprang to their feet at the sight of him, and shuffled out in front of their shanties to stand at attention.
"Lieutenant Zed, I presume," Monarch said, reaching out his hand.
Lieutenant Zed nodded tersely. "Your trip?"
"Uneventful," Sing said.
"The stone?" Bergenheim asked.
"Soon enough," he replied. "Set your cases down. Fasi will bring them out to the veranda, where we will have something to eat and drink before the inspection. Don't worry--we boil all our water. Before then Fasi will show you where you can wash your face and hands after your long, hot trip. Fasi!"
A small, wizened, tobacco-colored man wearing rags scurried out from somewhere, cowering as if he were a dog regularly beaten. Monarch was fascinated. He could not help himself; he'd never seen a pygmy in person before.
Fasi grabbed Bergenheim's case and reached out for Monarch's.
"I can handle it," Monarch said. Pygmies were often taken as slaves in this part of the world and he refused to condone that sort of thing.
"Let him take it," Lieutenant Zed insisted. "He won't feel right otherwise."
Monarch considered arguing, but instead handed Fasi the case. The pygmy turned and started into the plantation house.
"I'll join you in fifteen minutes or so," Lieutenant Zed said. "Gahji, we have several things to do first."
The boy soldier nodded.
This wasn't the way Monarch wanted things to go at all, but he followed Bergenheim and Fasi inside the old plantation house. Plaster had fallen from many of the walls, revealing moldering wood. But the wide plank floors were surprisingly clean, and the staircase the pygmy led them past looked like it had recently been shored up.
They exited the relic of a building onto a long, low veranda where a table had been set with bowls, pitchers of ice water, and plates of bread. The sound of the generators was louder here, though Monarch could not place their location.
Fasi set the cases down, turned immediately.
"Thank you," Monarch said, setting the knapsack beside his case.
Fasi did not react.
"Merci," Monarch said.
The pygmy slowed, glanced over at him as if confused, and then scurried out into the hall and down the stairs.
"Probably doesn't hear thanks very often," Bergenheim said.
Monarch looked out behind the veranda. The vegetation had been cut and burned all the way to the rear of the stockade, perhaps fifty yards, and he could now see that the sharpened logs that made up the wall were not only buried upright in the ground, but lashed together with thick rope. Two armed boys stood on the catwalk, looking out. In the far right corner was a stack of brush. Along the left wall of the stockade he saw boys transferring wooden boxes into a hole in the ground.
Chatterjee was pouring water into glasses. Sing was already drinking. Bergenheim appeared highly suspicious of the water. But he was drenched with sweat and finally grabbed up a glass, draining it. By the time Monarch had done the same, Fasi had reappeared with the Indian's gear.
He looked at Monarch, made a show of washing his hands and scrubbing his face. Monarch nodded. The pygmy led him off the veranda, around the corner, and away from the house to the north at an angle to those boys loading boxes into the ground. Monarch could see markings on the boxes: 7.62 x .39.
Monarch had no time to ponder the ammo dump before Fasi gestured that he should go around a bamboo screen. He did, and saw the door to an outhouse. Beside it a large metal bowl sat on a stump. Above the bowl, hanging from the branch of one of the few trees still standing inside the stockade, was a fifty-five-gallon drum. A hose snaked from it and dangled over the basin. A pinch clip held the hose shut.
Monarch used the outhouse, and then went to the basin. As he washed, he heard Lieutenant Zed and Gahji talking in a language he did not recognize. His mind coursed through what little was known about the founder and self-proclaimed lieutenant of the Congolese Liberation Army.
Lieutenant Zed's real name remained a mystery. But the piebald man was somewhere in his late teens when he first surfaced in the late 1990s, calling himself "Private Zed" and "William Zed." A self-proclaimed orphan of the genocides that wracked Central Africa, Zed fought with several different rebel factions during the first and second Congo Wars.
But he refused to lay down his arms along with other rebels as part of the general ceasefire in 2003, and fled into the jungle. About a year later, Zed promoted himself to lieutenant, and began recruiting orphan boys to his cause. The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not take Zed seriously until he emerged from the jungle in late 2004 with raw diamonds that he used to buy weapons for his burgeoning army.
Even though efforts were under way by that time to curb the African arms trade through bans on so-called blood or conflict diamonds, the stones that Zed brought were of such high quality that weapons dealers willingly traded with him.
Over the next twenty-eight months, Zed regularly exchanged small lots of diamonds for supplies, weapons, food, and ammunition. These diamonds came to the attention of Monarch's superiors at the CIA because they were some of the most perfect ever seen, almost flaw--
"Are you done?" Bergenheim called, shaking Monarch from his thoughts.
"A moment," Monarch said, wiping his face and hands with the towel.
He came around the bamboo screen. The Belgian, obviously in some kind of gastric distress, jumped by him, and disappeared toward the outhouse. As Monarch walked back toward the veranda, he looked to his right, back toward the shanty bivouac where the boy soldiers lived.
He stood there a moment, watching the boys, wondering if the rumors were true. CIA informants in the region had reported brutality on Lieutenant Zed's part. Although many boys were joining his army voluntarily, there were allegations that others had been kidnapped into service. Boys who tried to leave were reportedly enslaved in a secret mine. Those who tried to escape ended up disappearing.
Were they in the crocodile pit?
Monarch walked back to the veranda feeling sour, thinking that eventually all gangs or boys' armies, or whatever you wanted to call them, evolved toward violence and tyranny.
He glanced down at his forearm. Didn't his tattoo prove the point?
In Monarch's mind, he saw Julio the way he was a few weeks after he and Claudio had lied about the number of gold coins they'd stolen from a wealthy attorney. It was late afternoon, the dead of winter, and the leader of La Fraternidad was lying on his belly on a Buenos Aires rooftop, watching the comings and goings at a jewelry manufacturing company across the street. Robin lay to his left, Claudio to his right.
Claudio had been scouting the jewelry factory as a possible target for several months, and had told Julio about it the day before over Robin's objections.
For the past year, he and Claudio had been working as a team of two, with rare appearances by Julio or another member of the Brotherhood. But once he heard about the target, Julio had insisted on being part of the planning, which had made Robin uneasy. He and Claudio had done three jobs since the gold coin burglary, and each time they'd withheld a significant part of the take.
Was Julio suspicious? If he was, he was a good actor. But Robin could not shake the sense that the gang leader wanted in on this job to make sure he got the lion's share.
"I count twelve people who work inside," Julio said.
"I told you that," Claudio said. "I know everything about this place."
"Where's the safe?" Julio asked.
"On the rear wall, set in reinforced concrete," Claudio replied. "All windows, all doors, are rigged for alarm."
Julio looked at Robin, said, "How are you going to do it?"
Robin hesitated, and then told him.
When he and Claudio were done explaining what they had in mind, Julio rested his head in his palms, propped up on his elbows so he could see the loading dock and the rear door of the factory. After several long moments, he said, "It could work. I think it will work. But only if we get that cooperation."
"We've watched him," Claudio said. "We know his routine."
"Okay," Julio said. "I'm in."
"This is a two-man job," Robin said. "We have the best chance--"
"We have the best chance if this becomes a three-man job," Julio said in a cold, hard voice, staring at Robin with the flat, lethal look he got when anyone challenged him.
"Three men can carry more than two. Am I right?"
Robin glanced at Claudio, who said, "Sounds like a plan, brother."
Fasi and several other pygmy men brought bowls of food to the table on the veranda. It all smelled delicious to Monarch, who had not eaten much since the evening before at the safe house across the border in Rwanda. But when Gahji had announced proudly that the featured dish was barbecued bush pig, Sing and Chatterjee looked mildly horrified.
Bergenheim, who did not seem well at all, grew angry. "I cannot eat swine. I wish to see the stone, give you my thoughts, and either bid or leave."
Lieutenant Zed looked insulted, pulled off his sunglasses, said, "Soon."
Monarch was never one to pass up a perfectly good meal even if it was barbecued bush pig. He spooned a generous portion onto a plate of rice, and dug in. After several bites, he drank from his water, and smiled at Sing and Chatterjee.
"Really good bush pig," Monarch remarked. "You shouldn't miss it."
Over Lieutenant Zed's shoulder he saw Fasi almost smile.
Reluctantly, the man from Hong Kong and the Indian joined Monarch, who ate ravenously before asking, "Where exactly did you find it, Lieutenant?"
Lieutenant Zed said, "I imagine all of you are interested in seeing the location?"
"Only if it is as flawless as you say it is," Sing said.
"My sentiments exactly," the Indian said.
Bergenheim nodded, muttered, "I don't want to stay another minute in this hellhole if it's not worth it."
"I heard that," Lieutenant Zed said sharply. "And you're right, this is a hellhole. My entire country is a hellhole. But you will help us change that."
He looked at Gahji and nodded.
The boy soldier got up, and went inside the plantation house. Not long after, he returned with six armed boy soldiers. Gahji carried a finely-carved wooden box about the size of a toaster, and set it before Lieutenant Zed, who smiled, said, "And now what you have traveled so far to see."
He lifted the lid, set it on the table beside him before removing a heavy object wrapped in black cloth. Putting it on the table, he unwrapped the bundle and turned over the last piece of fabric.
Gasps went up from the three other bidders. Monarch knew next to nothing about diamonds, but there was no doubt that this one was exceptional.
"That's not possible!" Chatterjee cried.
Sing jumped up so fast to see the gem better that he knocked over his chair. Bergenheim just sat there, transfixed by the jewel.
"What is the weight?" Sing asked.
Lieutenant Zed smiled, knowing he had a captive audience now. "We await your tests, but we've measured it at seven thousand carats."
"Seven thousand!" Chatterjee marveled. "The Cullinan was what in rough?"
"3,106.75 carats," Bergenheim mumbled. "532.2 carats cut
"Cut?" Sing said. "What would you cut? It's like God did the job already!"
It was true. The crystal was shaped less like a conventional gem than an eight-sided translucent sculpture of a giant's teardrop or a dinosaur's egg. The more Monarch looked at the stone the more he was mesmerized by it.
Lieutenant Zed said, "Mr. Monarch?"
"Absolutely beautiful," Monarch said, using the camera in his knapsack to take pictures.
"More beautiful than any woman," the rebel leader boasted. "Why do you think I sleep with it?"
They examined the stone over the course of the next hour. Sing weighed it at 7,002.2 carats. Chatterjee tested it for thermal conductivity and found it astonishingly high. Despite physical distress that had him disappearing to the outhouse three times, Bergenheim donned loupes on both eyes and pored over the natural facets from all sides while shining a high-intensity light through it and measuring it with a portable spectrometer.
"I'm finding no lattice defects, and zero impurities," he said in disbelief.
"No boron?" Sing asked. "No nitrogen at all?"
"Zero," Bergenheim replied. "It has the highest refractive index I've ever seen and the facet edges are as sharp as the best-cut jewels anywhere on earth. The luster is just extraordinary."
"Mohs scale?" Chatterjee asked.
Bergenheim looked like he'd been slapped. "Are you mad? No one would dare run a sclerometer across something like this."
Lieutenant Zed said, "So you agree that it is flawless?"
"Well," Sing said, "the only absolutely positive way to know is to run X-rays through it."
"Which I can do," Monarch said, reaching for his case.
"You have an X-ray machine with you?" Bergenheim said, astonished.
"You don't?" Monarch said, unlocking the case. "This one's state of the art. But X-rays are X-rays. Lieutenant, unless you have a lead shield handy, you and your boys should probably back off in case the diamond throws the rays wild."
Lieutenant Zed grimaced, but then barked something in that Congolese dialect at the armed boys. They all moved off the veranda and into the yard behind the plantation house. Fasi followed them, stood off to one side. The three other potential bidders did the same, but not before Bergenheim said, "What about you?"
"The case is lead lined," Monarch replied, and then set up the laptop on the table beside the diamond with the case in front of it.
With a thin cable he attached the nozzle-like camera with the bug-eye lens to the computer. "Ready?" Monarch murmured.
"When you are," Barnett whispered in his earbud. "And make damn sure you point that thing away from you."
He clucked with his tongue in agreement, pushed the massive diamond over on its side, and reached around from behind the case to press the bug-eyed lens to the surface of the stone. With his other hand, he hit the return key on the laptop, which caused a split-second hum as X-rays spit out.
Monarch glanced over at the screen, seeing the diamond in black with the lattices exposed as thin white lines.
"They want three more perspectives," Barnett said.
Monarch clucked and did as she'd asked. When he was finished, he murmured,
"More than good," she said. "They say it's for real. No detectable flaws whatsoever. Which means you are a go for phase two."
"Gotta check out the mine first," Monarch muttered as he disconnected the miniature X-ray camera from the computer.
"What did you find?" Lieutenant Zed was walking back to the veranda.
"Look for yourself," Monarch said, turning the laptop screen to face the others who were coming back to the veranda. "It's perfect."
"Nothing's perfect, Robin," said Claudio after they'd left the rooftop across from the jewelry factory and Julio, who'd gone off in search of Inez. "We'll just have to deal with him."
"Julio knows," Robin said, leading them down an alleyway.
"I don't think so," Claudio said.
"We have to assume he does," Robin insisted. "And act as if he doesn't."
The older boy looked pained, and nodded unhappily.
"What's the matter?" Robin asked.
"Julio," Claudio said. "He rescued me from the ano, the same way I rescued you from the ano. And this is how I repay him?"
"I have repaid him for four years," Robin shot back.
"What about me?" Claudio demanded.
"I can never repay you in full. You know that."
"This is how I feel about Julio sometimes," Claudio moaned, and then rubbed his head. "Why can't I just be by myself and paint?"
Robin felt bad, and said, "Maybe we will take enough from the factory to buy you the things you need to be a painter."
Claudio's jaw loosened. "You mean like canvases? Easels? Paints. Brushes?"
"Why not? We have no idea what's really in there, do we? For all we know there could be a king's ransom."
In Monarch's earbud, Barnett asked, "How are you going to steal it?"
"I haven't figured that out yet," he muttered as he followed Lieutenant Zed, Gahji, and the three diamond experts across the canal bridge.
He set his case on the pad by the helicopter with the others, and then followed them toward a wide path that led up the hillside.
"Slattery's telling me that it's crucial to national security that we control that diamond," Barnett said.
Jack Slattery was Monarch's new boss, an abrasive guy, but smart and well connected within the upper echelons of the agency. Monarch clucked his tongue twice to indicate he understood.
As it had been explained to Monarch, American scientists had been searching for flawless diamonds for years so that they could be used to exponentially increase the power of lasers. Opposing mirrors made of flawless diamond crystals, they theorized, would allow lasers to be developed that would use X-rays instead of light waves as their energy source.
An X-ray-based laser would allow chemists, biologists, and physicists to study all sorts of things at their subatomic level. It could also be used by doctors to pinpoint and kill cancerous cells, and by engineers to create lighter, stronger substances.
"Still think this is about weapons," Monarch mumbled.
"Slattery says it's not," Barnett insisted. "He says no chance of an X-ray--"
"Explain the bidding process," Sing said.
Monarch realized that as the path grew steeper they'd all slowed down.
"How and when," said Bergenheim, who was gasping and looking ill.
"The helicopter will take you back to your vehicles as soon as you see the mine," Lieutenant Zed replied. "I will give you an e-mail address. You will submit your bids to that e-mail by noon the day after tomorrow. That will give you and the other bidders arriving in the morning time to come up with your best offer."
"Wait," Chatterjee said. "What other bidders?"
"Right," Sing said angrily. "We were led to believe--"
"You were led to believe that there would be an auction," Lieutenant Zed snapped. "You didn't honestly think I would limit it to four? The South Africans couldn't make it here until tomorrow. The same with the British. The two others--from Singapore and France--asked to join late."
Monarch checked his watch. It was almost five. Sunset would be at six twenty, which meant the pilot would want to fly sooner than later.
"How much farther is the mine?" he asked.
"Ten minutes," said Gahji.
"I don't need to see it," Bergenheim complained. "Just send me the geological reports."
Lieutenant Zed laughed and walked on, calling over his shoulder, "We don't have any reports, and no idea how deep the laterite vein goes."
"What are you talking about?" Chatterjee said. "You dug it, didn't you?"
The rebel leader shook his head, gestured back across at the plantation house.
"Those people, the Coeurs, they started the mine. At one time they had almost one hundred people in here digging. But before the hole started to produce, malaria and dysentery swept through here. Killed them all, and the mine was abandoned."
"And, what, you just stumbled on it, went in, and found that diamond?" Sing asked, dumbfounded.
"Basically," Lieutenant Zed agreed. "It was as if God led me to it."
Monarch noticed Fasi glaring at the ground.
"But who owns the claim?" Bergenheim demanded. "If there was a mine, someone owns the mineral rights to it."
"We live in the jungle, but we're not apes," Lieutenant Zed said calmly. "I bought the rights for fifty dollars two years ago."
"Fifty dollars," Chatterjee said, shaking his head. "That diamond is worth...well..."
"Yes, it is," the rebel leader said, smiling again as they broke from the jungle into a clearing chiseled flat high on the hillside.
Dark tailings had been thrown in heaps down the side of the hill, stripping it of vegetation, exposing the reddish surface soil Monarch had seen from the helicopter pad. The mine entrance looked like a black gash. Filthy, exhausted boys wearing headlamps pushed wheelbarrows laden with fresh ore from the hole. Others picked through the rocks the mine boys dumped, looking for gems.
"They don't look much like warriors," Monarch commented.
"Every boy takes his turns up here," Lieutenant Zed retorted. "They do it eagerly. Isn't that true, Gahji?"
The boy soldier nodded vigorously. "It is their honor because they know they not only fight for the revolution, they work for the guns they carry."
But Monarch saw more desperation than pride in the mine boys' faces. And fear. And shame. Then he noticed that Fasi was regarding the boys with what looked like pity.
He's basically a slave, but he's worried about the boys? Monarch thought.
"Whoever wishes to see where it was found may enter now," said Lieutenant Zed.
In his earbud, Barnett said, "Your call. We won't get a feed. And we've got the GPS coordinates."
"I'm going in," said Sing.
"Yes," Chatterjee said. "It will be cooler inside, right?"
"A lot cooler," Gahji agreed.
Bergenheim was already moving toward the entrance.
Though Monarch was interested to see the inside of a diamond mine, he said, "I'll pass, wait at the helicopter."
"Can't wait to leave us, Mr. Monarch?" Lieutenant Zed asked.
"Can't wait to deliver my assessment and bid recommendation to my clients," Monarch said.
"Go down with him, Gahji."
"I'm with you," Julio said. "Every step of the way."
Robin wanted to argue with the leader of La Fraternidad, but caught Claudio shaking his head.
"Perfect, my brother," Robin replied instead. "Part one will go easier."
It was late on a Friday afternoon in September, blustery and raining in Buenos Aires. They were on the roof across the street, keeping tabs on people entering and exiting the jewelry factory as the weekend approached.
Just as the natural light began to dim, Claudio said, "There they are."
Robin peeked over the edge of the roof, seeing a van bearing the logo of a cleaning service backing up to the loading dock. A car parked beside it. Two women climbed out. A man in a workman's jumpsuit exited the van.
The overhead door rolled up. The women and the man climbed onto the loading dock and took cleaning gear from the rear of the van. The overhead door rolled down.
"No security guard at night?" Julio asked.
"They replaced him with a new alarm system," Claudio explained. "Last employee will leave for the weekend in five minutes. Then it will just be the cleaning crew. The women will leave in two hours. The man, Mr. Mendez, will stay behind ten minutes to inspect and then leave at exactly seven thirty."
"Every time?" asked Julio, sounding impressed.
"Every time," Claudio replied.
Two hours later, at precisely seven twenty, the two women came out the service door, lit cigarettes, climbed in their car, and drove off.
Robin, Claudio, and Julio were already in motion.
The pilot was there, making his inspections. Monarch walked to the shady side of the helicopter. Gahji shadowed him.
Trying to appear at ease, Monarch rested one hand on the helicopter. But he was studying everything, and trying to figure out what he could do to delay the helicopter's departure.
He thought of that clanking noise in the rotor housing. Could he suggest looking at it and then monkey with it enough to disable the chopper?
Or steal Gahji's gun and shoot the--?
No way. The bridge to the stockade had been retracted. The gate was closed. There were three or four hundred armed kids inside and he still had no idea where Lieutenant Zed kept the diamond.
Then something dawned on him that just might work. He stood, picked up his instrument case, and set it on the floor of the helicopter bay. He flipped the hasps open, lifted the lid.
"Thought you were scared about the humidity and heat," Gahji said, watching him suspiciously.
"Just want to make sure my computer backed up the data," Monarch explained, making a show of removing the computer and attaching the portable X-ray camera.
He acted as if he was paying attention to the recorded images of the diamond's remarkable architecture. But for the next several minutes, he kept the camera aimed toward the cockpit and triggered burst after burst of X-rays toward the instrument panel.
"The others are coming," Gahji said.
The pilot opened the cockpit door, climbed in.
"No problem," Monarch said, detaching the camera, and sliding it and the computer into the case.
Shutting and locking it, hearing Lieutenant Zed's voice approaching, Monarch wondered whether it had been enough.
The other diamond experts came around the rear of the helicopter.
The pilot cursed.
"What the hell is--?"
Julio clamped a gloved hand over the mouth of the cleaner at the jewelry factory. Claudio and Robin had stepped out from behind the van wearing hoods when he raised the loading dock door.
Mendez began struggling and making whining noises as Julio dragged him back inside the loading area. Claudio and Robin vaulted inside. Robin killed the lights. Claudio lowered the overhead door. Robin flipped one light back on.
The man had stopped struggling and sat down on the cement floor because Julio had pressed a pistol barrel to his head.
Where had that come from? No one in La Fraternidad carried any weapon other than a knife. Julio used to say that guns were unnecessary and only complicated things if you got caught.
"What's the alarm code?" Julio demanded from behind his hood.
Mendez looked wild-eyed, said, "Señor Hernandez, he kill me I tell you."
"I'll kill you right now, you don't," Julio growled.
"Tell us and you'll come out of this alive," Robin said, hoping to defuse the situation.
The cleaner sobbed: "4-8-0-2-3-2."
"How long until it activates?" Claudio asked.
"Thirty seconds you must leave before the doors and windows go alarm."
"Smart man," Julio said, taking out a kerchief and using it to gag the cleaner. Robin joined him with rope.
Julio tied his wrists while Robin got his ankles.
Claudio typed in the code, then went to the overhead door, lifted it, and then shut it. He watched a digital panel, saw the word "Armed" flash twice.
"I still think we should just leave the alarm off," Julio said.
Claudio shook his head. "The alarm company has to be expecting it to be armed right about now. That's the routine. We don't want to break it until we're ready to get out of here."
Robin thought of something. "What about his van? What if someone comes looking for him?"
"He's not due home until midnight so we won't be here long enough for it to matter," Claudio said.
Julio went around behind Mendez, removed his hood, and turned it backward before lowering it onto the cleaner's head.
"Sleep," Claudio said, removing his own hood. "No use fighting it."
But Mendez's body remained stiff and alert.
"Let's move," Julio said, starting toward the door.
Claudio caught him. "I've found that it's better if our young genius leads."
Julio thought better of it, but then nodded to Robin, said, "Show us how."
First Gahji and then Lieutenant Zed went to the door of the helicopter cockpit. Monarch heard a fierce discussion ensuing.
"What's happened?" Bergenheim moaned. "I just want to get back to my nice air-conditioned--"
"Something is wrong with the helicopter," Lieutenant Zed said sharply.
"I thought I heard something wrong before we landed, up in the rotor," Chatterjee said before Monarch could.
"We all did," Sing said.
"This is electrical," Gahji said, studying Monarch, who acted pissed off.
"Are you telling me we have to walk a hundred kilometers out of here?" he demanded angrily.
"I'll die," Bergenheim whimpered. "I am not meant for such things."
"You won't have to walk out, any of you," said Lieutenant Zed, sounding disgusted. "But you will have to stay the night. We'll call in a second helicopter after dawn to take you out."
"Fuck," Monarch said, exasperated. "I wanted to get those reports in tonight."
"I did too," Chatterjee said. "We had a lead on the bidders coming tomorrow."
"Now it's a level playing field," Sing said, with a touch of bitterness.
The Belgian jewel expert looked like he might be sick all over again.
"Well done," Gloria Barnett whispered in Monarch's ear.
Monarch clucked as if he were completely irritated at the situation.
"We will feed you, and find places for you to sleep," Lieutenant Zed said.
"Maybe tomorrow you'll know better how life is for these boys."
Monarch sighed, looked over at Gahji. The boy soldier's lazy attention was still on him when the rebel leader barked, "Fasi, see to food, and beds for them."
The pygmy reacted as if swatted with a riding crop, hurrying away toward the bridge, which had been extended again.
"I'll contract some incurable disease," Bergenheim lamented as they trudged after the pygmy. "Some snail that will get into my liver and never leave. I've read about it. They have them here."
Monarch had almost come to feel sorry for the Belgian. "You'd have to step in water with a cut on your foot," he said.
"Malaria then," Bergenheim said, and looked at Gahji, who had at last taken his eyes off Monarch. "Are there mosquitos?"
"Clouds of them," Gahji said. "But we have nets."
"And whisky," Lieutenant Zed said. "Whisky in the blood helps keep the mosquitos away. Johnnie Walker Black Label. And strong cigars. Cuban."
"Black Label and Cuban cigars out here?" Sing remarked.
"We live in the jungle, but we are not apes."
As agile as only the son of a cat burglar could be, Robin slipped through the door that led off the loading dock into a hallway that connected it to the jewelry factory floor. He flipped on a flashlight, and then reached into his front pocket and fingered open a bag of talcum powder. Taking a solid pinch of it, he cast it underhand out and toward the ceiling.
He kept his light moving from the top to the bottom of the hall, looked over his shoulder, and said, "No beams yet."
"I know there are some in here," Claudio warned.
Robin nodded. He remembered them from the parts list for the alarm system that Claudio had somehow obtained. Setting off carefully, tossing the powder every few feet, they soon reached the factory floor.
"East wall," Claudio said.
The three of them swept their lights over rows of assembly benches, a shipping department with stacks of cardboard, and a glass-faced office where the owner worked. The safe had to be in there.
They reached the door to the office without incident. Julio was a master at picking locks and he was stepping forward to open the door when Robin stopped him. He crouched, lifted the cover on the mail slot, got talcum, and blew the powder through.
When they shined their lights inside, the three red beams cutting diagonally through the office stood out like thick, taut cables.
"There's the safe," Claudio said with great interest. "Standup, two-hour fireproof, just as I figured."
Robin saw it in Claudio's light. "You know that mechanism?"
"Fuck," said Julio, whose light was shining on the office door. "The door opens inward. Soon as we do, the alarms will be triggered."
"So we'll take out one of the windows," Robin said.
"You like it?" Lieutenant Zed asked with a slur in his voice, several hours after dark.
All of them were back out at the table on the veranda again. Torches burned some kind of insect repellent, but they barely kept the mosquitos at bay. The generators ran, brightening the two bare lightbulbs over the table. The onions and garlic in the tomato sauce filled the air. An empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label sat mid-table. A second one, close to half empty, was in Lieutenant Zed's hand as he poured himself a refill. He clenched a burning cigar in his teeth.
"Excellent sauce," Sing said.
"And the fish?" Monarch said. "Tilapia?"
"The lakes are full of them," said the rebel leader with a slight slur in his voice.
"Fasi knows twenty ways to cook them. Don't you, Fasi?"
The pygmy, who had been standing at nervous attention, nodded, said in French, "Yes, Lieutenant."
"His mother taught him," Lieutenant Zed said. "More whisky?"
"For me," Bergenheim said, drunk and holding up his tin cup. "Trying to make my stomach as polluted as possible. Kill everything. And I'll take that cigar after all."
Fasi darted over, snagged the second whisky bottle, and hustled it and a cigar to the Belgian. He filled his cup, and then Chatterjee's and Sing's. Monarch shook his head when he was offered more.
"Why the boys?" Monarch asked finally. "Why haven't adult men joined your army, Lieutenant?"
Gahji, who sat off to one side, eating, now stopped, looked up.
The rebel leader's demeanor hardened. "Many men have joined," he said. "They run the other camps."
"So many more boys than men?" Monarch said reasonably.
Lieutenant Zed studied him critically before he said, "Only the young can change the world. You start them early, they cannot help but succeed."
Monarch nodded, said, "I see your point."
"My point and my strategy," the rebel leader insisted, draining his cup and pouring another. "The best warriors I have ever seen have all been boys, me included. Boys make up for their lack of strength with ferocity and battle smarts. Most simply have no fear. The ones who become afraid, die. The ones who don't, get very good."
He drained that cup too, stood, and said, "Gahji will show you where you are to sleep. Fasi will wake you early. The helicopter will be here after dawn."
"Will we see you, Lieutenant?" Bergenheim said.
"Of course," he said as he moved somewhat unsteadily toward the door. "What kind of host do you think I am?"
Fasi brought mats and mosquito nets to the veranda. Gahji and one of the other boy soldiers Monarch had seen earlier in the day moved the table out onto the ground behind the old plantation house.
Bergenheim looked ready to cry, but, still smoking his cigar, got to his knees and crawled in under the mosquito net. He put the burning cigar on the cement near his head. The Belgian was snoring before Sing and Chatterjee returned from the outhouse.
"In the morning," Gahji said, snagging the whisky bottle from the table. About a third remained.
"He'll never remember how much was left," Monarch whispered.
For the first time since the helicopter failed to start, Gahji reacted with something resembling a smile, and said, "I know."
Monarch set his instrument case beside his mosquito net, crawled inside and curled up. The generator died and with it the electric lights. The torches flickered weakly, throwing shadows, and he was acutely aware of the symphony of bugs and frogs and night animals calling.
He lay there until the torches died, close to two hours, long enough for the boys on sentry duty to drowse, before finally making his move.
Once Claudio and Julio pried off the trim that held the glass in place, the windowpane came out easier than Robin expected.
"I'll find what else we need," Julio said, and set off through the factory.
Robin went into the office first. Tossing more talcum powder, he studied the three light beams and saw a path that would take him to the safe. He straddled the first beam, belly-crawled under the second, and climbed up on the desk to jump over the third. He landed in the eighteen inches of free space in front of the safe.
"Doesn't look too bad," Claudio said.
"It would have stopped most thieves," Robin said.
"True," Claudio said as Julio returned carrying a small tank of acetylene, a hose, a face shield, and two torch heads.
"Every bench has got a set," Julio said. "Just like you said."
"I told you I knew everything about this place," Claudio replied as he crawled in through the window frame.
He accepted the tank from Julio, said, "I'll need three or four more."
While Julio went to gather the gas tanks, Robin threw talcum powder into the air and met Claudio halfway. Two trips and they'd ferried the equipment they needed through the light beams without incident.
"Two-hour fireproof, you said?" Robin asked.
"Got to be," Claudio replied, lowering the face shield. "But that's a regular fire, hot, but not aimed, you know?" He turned on the gas, lit the torch with a pop. "Nothing intense as this."
He fiddled with the torch control until the flame was short, stubby, and so brilliant that Robin and Julio had to look at it sideways when Claudio started to cut about an inch and a half away from the dial.
Monarch turned off the satellite radio in his ear and shut off the camera. He didn't want to be distracted in any way. He grabbed his knapsack and slipped out from under the mosquito net, glad that he'd thought to wear crepe-soled shoes. This was going to be the most delicate creep he'd ever been on. He saw no other way around it: he was going to have to slip in, find the rebel leader's bedroom, and somehow get the--
He caught a flash of movement near the back door to the old plantation house and froze against the rear wall, watching a small figure amble by and leave the veranda. In a split second, Monarch's instincts reversed and he padded after the pygmy toward the outhouse.
Monarch had excellent night vision and scanned the area back toward the boys' bivouac, seeing no movement. In five soft bounds he was behind Fasi, threw his left hand over the little man's mouth and caught him around the chest, lifted him into the air even as the pygmy squealed softly.
"Ecoutez," Monarch whispered harshly in French. "I am an American agent. I am here to help you. Do you understand?"
Until that point, Fasi's body had been rigid with fear. But then it softened and he nodded. "I'm going to set you down," Monarch continued. "Then we are going to talk. Okay?"
The pygmy shook his head. Monarch set him down anyway, removed his hand from Fasi's mouth. "Why not?"
"If the Lieutenant finds out I..."
"He won't know anything for certain until it's too late," Monarch said. "Where's the diamond?"
"The diamond?" Fasi hissed before spitting with disgust. "The diamond is mine! My people's. You said you were here to help us, but all you want is what belongs to us. Just like everybody else."
His story came out in a rush of harsh whispers. Fasi's people had known about the mine for decades, and had explored it, protected it. The pygmy had been all through the place as a boy. He'd left the jungle and attended school for a while in Goma, near the Rwandan border, but then returned here because he never felt like he fit in the outside world.
Lieutenant Zed showed up five years ago because he'd heard about the abandoned mine. When Fasi's family refused to show him where it was, the reign of terror began. Lieutenant Zed killed Fasi's sister and then his young brother. When he threatened to kill the rest of Fasi's family, the pygmy broke down and agreed.
"And you've been his slave since?"
Fasi nodded. "And these boys. They are his slaves too. He fills their minds with hate and revolution, but he is only interested in the diamonds. The boys are here to defend and work the mine. When they try to escape..."
Monarch could hear the raw emotion in Fasi's voice.
"It's horrible," he choked.
Monarch had underestimated the pygmy. "You're a very brave man, Fasi, and I promise you that the United States government will make sure that Lieutenant Zed is punished, and your claim to the mine is recognized. But you've got to help me get the diamond. And it's not about the money. It's too complicated to explain right now, but that diamond isn't about pretty rocks for women's fingers. It could change science, medicine, all sorts of things. Save people's lives. You have to believe me."
For several moments there was no noise but the rustle of birds on their roost, and off in the darkness the constant rumble of frogs.
"He'll know I took it," Fasi said in a dull voice.
The implications of that were clear: Monarch would get the diamond, but Fasi would surely see the crocodile pit up close and personal.
"You know the land between this lake and the one south ten miles or so?"
"I grew up in there," Fasi said.
"Then once we get that diamond, you're coming with me."
"Almost there," Claudio said as the acetylene torch cut through the last bit of metal holding the locking mechanism into the door of the safe. "I'll need a hammer to finish the job."
Julio had remained outside the office, watching them work. He trotted off, and was gone longer than Robin would have thought necessary. Claudio had cut full around the dial by the time he returned.
"Should do it," Julio said, handing Robin a hammer and several plastic shopping bags at the window.
The leader of La Fraternidad smelled of rum. He was drinking on the job? Robin couldn't believe it, but said nothing, took the hammer, stuffed the bags in his back pocket. Thank God Julio hadn't insisted on coming inside the office. The alarm would have already been triggered.
But he compartmentalized that idea and quickly worked his way back to Claudio, who took the hammer, shone his light on the dial, and gave it a sharp rap, and then another. On the third it budged. A fourth blow dislodged the mechanism and they heard it thud inside.
"Brilliant!" Robin whispered. "We're in."
"Not quite," Claudio said, reaching into the seared hole with a screwdriver.
"Gotta get the rods to disengage."
Several frustrating moments later, Robin heard the sound of metal sliding through metal and the safe door sagged open on its hinges.
"Careful," Robin said. "You've only got eighteen inches to play with."
Claudio nodded, softly tugged at the hole in the door. It swung open enough that they could get their lights inside.
"Oh my God," Robin whispered.
"Sonofabitch," Claudio agreed in awe.
"What?" Julio cried. "What do you see?"
According to Fasi, the diamond was stored beneath the floorboards under Lieutenant Zed's cot in a south-facing bedroom on the second floor of the plantation house.
Monarch thought about that, asked, "Where's Zed's escape route?"
The pygmy hesitated. "What?"
"A second way out of here," Monarch said. "The Lieutenant's smart; he'd have another way to leave other than the front gate and the bridge."
After a beat, Fasi said, "There's a ditch that runs under the wall to drain rainwater. It's in the back under a pile of brush."
Monarch remembered the brush pile and the fishing boats behind the fortress. It took him several minutes to devise a plan and explain it to the pygmy.
"That way he'll have no idea it was you until it's too late," Monarch said.
Fasi reluctantly agreed and led the way to the generators. They took four cans of gasoline and snuck them back toward the outhouse where they took the towel from beside the wash basin, and then moved closer to the north wall of the stockade where two rectangles of lashed bamboo lay on the ground.
"I'll take it from here, get them all up and moving," Monarch whispered. "You know what to do once it starts."
He couldn't see the pygmy very well, but could smell fear in the little man's sweat. Fasi said, "Okay," and trotted away.
Monarch waited until he could no longer see him, and then quickly set about improvising a bomb. He opened the gas cans, tore the towel into rags. He tied two strips together, making a cord about twenty inches long. He doused the cord with gasoline and set it aside. Then he stuffed more rags into the mouth of each can. Careful to make no noise, he lifted one of the bamboo covers and lowered the cans down on top of the boxes of ammunition.
He positioned half of the soaked rag down the wall of the pit and stretched out the other half of the soaked cord in the dirt. He fished the cigar he hadn't smoked from his pocket along with a box of matches. They were damp and took several strikes before they flamed.
Monarch puffed hard on the cigar, cupping the end so it would not be seen. Satisfied that it would not go out, he lathered the butt end with saliva and set that part of the cigar on the gas-soaked rag, the smoldering coal a solid six inches away.
When he was done, Monarch flipped back on the satellite radio, started moving back toward the outhouse, and whispered, "Rogue."
He heard Barnett sigh with relief. "Where have you--?"
Monarch cut her off, whispered, "In about five minutes I'm either going to have the diamond and be heading toward that lake, or I'll have sent an innocent man to his death, and probably me along with him."
A pause. "It's rarely gray with you."
"Tell me about it," Monarch whispered.
"What's in there?" Julio demanded again.
"Bags of loose stones!" Claudio cried.
"Diamonds?" Julio called back, excited.
"Some of them," Robin said. "And rubies and emeralds and sapphires."
"Nothing big, and not a ton, but they're here," Claudio said. He was already reaching inside.
Robin got out one of the plastic grocery bags, held it open while Claudio pulled out small Ziploc bags that held the gems and dropped them inside. In less than five minutes, they had cleaned out the precious stones. Robin tied the grocery bag shut, put it in a second bag, and tied that one up too.
"Anything else?" Robin asked, looking over Claudio's shoulder as he moved aside a ledger to reveal four small gold ingots, each stamped with a "2."
Eight ounces of gold! Robin thought.
"That's all," Claudio said loud enough for Julio to hear as he palmed the ingots and shut off his light.
Robin aimed his flashlight back toward Julio so the leader of the Brotherhood was blinded while Claudio pocketed the gold. Then they worked their way back through the light beams cleanly. But Robin was sweating when he handed the bag containing the loose gems to Julio. If the leader of the Brotherhood ever found out--
"A fortune!" Julio exulted. "Feel how heavy it is!"
He made as if to untie the bag until Claudio climbed out the window and said,
"It's past nine. We need to get out of here right now."
Julio nodded and set off in the lead across the factory floor to that hallway that led to the loading dock. He reached in his jacket pocket, came up with a flask, said, "Found this in one of the desks."
He drank from the flask as he swaggered down the hall to the door to the loading dock. He stuffed the flask in his back pocket, opened the door, and stepped through. "Shit," Julio said.
Robin rushed up behind the leader of La Fraternidad to see that the cleaner had managed to get his arms free and his hood off. He was staring at them, his fingers tugging at the knots in the rope that still bound his ankles.
Julio drew his pistol, marched right up, aimed at the poor man's head, and pulled the trigger.
The sound--a hollow whumph like a mortar launching, before a full blast and roar--was surprisingly loud, even from the south side of the old plantation house where Monarch was pinned to the wall below and to the side of Lieutenant Zed's bedroom window.
Shouts went up all around the interior of the stockade. He heard cursing from the open window before the second explosion, and the third.
Somewhere up there, Gahji shouted, "They're after the diamond, Lieutenant!"
More cursing, the chatter of more bullets, and then distinctly Monarch heard Lieutenant Zed yelling, "Get them to fight, Gahji! Get them to fight!"
Suddenly Monarch spotted a dark figure at the window. Something dropped, and hit the ground right next to him. An AK-47. Something else fell and hit. Then the figure jumped, landed with a grunt, and rolled over.
The second Lieutenant Zed tried to stand up, Monarch nailed him hard from behind, hitting him just back from the ear with a fair-size rock. The rebel leader crumpled. Monarch pivoted, saw a second, smaller figure at the window.
"It's not here!" Fasi cried.
"I've got it," Monarch yelled. "Jump!"
Fasi hung from the windowsill, dropped, landed hard, cried out in pain.
Scores of boys were running from the bivouac toward the north wall of the compound as Monarch moved to the box Lieutenant Zed had dropped, and hissed in French, "You all right?"
"My ankle," the pygmy said. "But I'm okay."
Monarch opened the box, pulled out the cloth wrapped around the diamond, stuffed it in his knapsack.
"Rogue, do you have the stone?" Barnett demanded.
"We do," Monarch said, beginning to move.
"I had help."
There must have been gunpowder or some kind of heavier ordnance stored in the bottom of the ammo dump because a fourth explosion--more powerful than the others--ripped the night, sending off a brilliant flash that was followed by a barrage of bullets cracking. The boy soldiers were opening up now, firing at shadows. Slipping from the side of the house toward the stockade wall with Fasi limping behind him, Monarch moved away from the gunfire toward that brush pile set against the east wall of the fortress.
"Slattery says well done, Rogue," Barnett said. "The both of you."
"That was the easy part," Monarch said, running. "Now to get the hell out of here."
"Why'd you shoot him?" Robin cried, horrified by the hole in the cleaner's head and the blood and gore on the floor and wall behind him. The only other people he'd ever seen die were his parents, gunned down as well.
"He saw me," Julio said, his hands shaking as he stuffed the pistol back in his waistband. "He saw both of you, too."
Still clutching the bag of gems, the leader of La Fraternidad reached for the flask again, draining it this time.
"We've got to get out of here," Claudio said. "Get the van keys, Robin."
"What?" Robin said, still staring at the body.
"The keys," Claudio insisted. "We'll drive somewhere, and leave it."
"What about him?"
"No one's going to find him until Monday morning," Julio said. "Claudio's right. Leave him."
Robin wanted to puke, to cry, and to smash his fists into Julio's drunken face.
"Robin!" Claudio yelled. "The keys."
"I'll get them," Julio said, suddenly disgusted. He thrust the bag of gems at Robin, crouched, and started rifling through the pockets of the dead man's coverall until he came up with the car keys.
Claudio punched in the alarm code. Julio grabbed the bag of precious stones and slapped the keys in Robin's gloved hand. "You're driving."
Claudio raised the overhead door several inches, sprawled on his belly, and looked through the crack. Then he got to his knees, raised the door a full two feet, and said, "Out."
Julio ran over, lay down, and rolled sideways under the door and out into the night. Robin trudged after him with zero enthusiasm. He looked at Claudio. "No one was supposed to get hurt."
"Someone did," Claudio said. "You can't change that now. So unless you want to spend a long time in jail for being part of a killing during a burglary, you better get outside and into that van."
Robin hesitated, but then nodded and crawled under the door and off the loading dock onto wet cement. It was raining hard now.
The world seemed incomprehensibly small and suffocating to him when he climbed into the driver's seat of the van, and saw pictures of the cleaner's children taped to the sun visor.
Fasi and Monarch kicked and pushed at the brush pile, trying to find that drainage ditch.
"Your signal's getting weaker," Barnett said.
"Couldn't bring the instrument case with me," Monarch replied as rounds kept going off from the ammo dump.
"Give me a pickup time and place in case I lose you," she replied.
"North shore of the south lake," Monarch said, continuing to rip branches from the brush file. "ETA five hours. Copy?"
But there was no reply.
Somewhere in the darkness behind him, he heard Bergenheim yell, "Where is the Lieutenant? Where is that stone?"
"Shut up!" Gahji screamed. "Hold your fire! Hold your fire!"
Monarch gave one last push and the pile rolled away, revealing the drainage ditch, rank and watery. He jumped in, landed in loose mud to his shins. Still clutching the diamond, Fasi slid in less enthusiastically, but followed Monarch forward and under the wall of the stockade.
The shooting had all but stopped now. The air stunk of explosives. And the moon had come out from behind clouds when Monarch climbed out of the drainage close to where he expected to see the fishing boats.
But there were none anywhere that he could see.
"The Lieutenant!" he heard someone yell back inside the fortress. "He's here!"
"Where are the fishing boats?" Monarch whispered.
"I don't know," the pygmy said in a whining tone. "They either leave them here, or over there, in the cove, on the other side...of the crocodiles."
Driving the cleaner's van toward the Villa Miserie, Robin felt like he'd aged years watching Julio shoot a man in cold blood at point-blank range. His parents had always avoided violence, preferring a more subtle, intelligent approach to crime. Julio used to preach the same controlled methods. But then, with no warning, Julio had a pistol, and he'd used it.
It was the rum. How else could you explain it?
Every time they'd go by a streetlight, Robin would catch sight of Julio in the seat beside him, bleary-eyed but staring straight ahead, the bag of gems in his lap. Robin wanted to backhand the man for his stupidity, to grab the pistol and--
"Go down by the tracks and that old mill," Julio said.
Robin felt like a zombie, but followed his instructions, and several minutes later drove the van across the muddy parking lot of a decrepit textile mill. He got out, left the keys in the ignition, watched Julio tear off his black T-shirt and stuff it in the mouth of the gas tank.
Julio lit the shirt with a lighter. They ran and were several hundred yards away when the gas tank erupted.
Tight to the southern stockade wall, Monarch ran toward the crocodile-infested moat with Fasi limping hard behind him. How were they going to get across? Lowering the bridge was too noisy. Chancing a swim was unthinkable.
It came down to a choice of alerting the boy soldiers or trying to remain in hiding until the new helicopter arrived, and--
Monarch was fifteen feet from the edge of the canal when he heard shouts from the boys go up in French and Congolese: "Where is the American? Find the American!"
So much for leaving quietly.
Monarch decided if he was going to make noise, it should be useful noise. Flipping the safety off, he stepped up to the bank of the crocodile pit and opened fire with the AK-47, strafing the water back and forth from one side to the other. In the moonlight, he looked at Fasi, who was right there, terrified.
"No," the pygmy said, holding up his hands.
"We're gonna end up in there one way or the other, my little friend," Monarch said, grabbed Fasi by the upper arm, threw him into the moat, and jumped in after him.
Monarch splashed into the foul water right next to Fasi, grabbed the pygmy around the neck in a lifesaver's hold, aimed the gun back at the upper walls of the fortress, looking for movement even as he kicked them toward the opposite bank of the moat.
Something blunt, hard, and prehistoric bumped Monarch's back, stopped him cold.
Robin was beyond numb by the time they reached the house where he'd spent the last four years of his life with Claudio, Julio, and his other brother thieves. But when he followed them through the door that night, it seemed like an alien place where he was an alien visitor.
Six or seven members of La Fraternidad were in the kitchen drinking beer and cooking. Another six were playing cards or watching a game on a television screen in the largest room in the house.
"My brothers!" Julio cried, heading into the kitchen and grabbing a beer from a brother who'd only just opened it. "Tonight La Fraternidad de Ladrones went to a whole other level. Downstairs if you want to get your share!"
The brothers jumped from their chairs and couches, cheering and grabbing more beers and rum as they headed toward the staircase to the basement, where meetings of the Brotherhood were held, especially when they were dividing loot.
Claudio handed Robin a beer, and he was instantly angry that he not only wanted to drink the beer, he needed to drink the beer and a whole lot more of them if he was ever going to sleep. He chugged it down, grabbed two more.
The crocodile's corpse bumped Monarch again. It was floating belly up in the water behind him. But then he heard a powerful tail slap the water somewhere near and to his left, and realized he hadn't killed them all. Fasi heard the slap too, wriggled from Monarch's arms, making weird hysterical sounds as he scrambled over the dead crocodile and up onto the muddy bank.
Monarch was right behind the pygmy, threw the gun up onto the bank and tried to claw his way up after it. But the earth there was super-slick. He slipped twice back into the water.
Fasi's hand appeared. Monarch grabbed at it.
The pygmy was surprisingly strong and hoisted him up the bank. He was on his knees, his feet still hanging over the edge, when he heard the water behind him swirl.
Monarch yanked his feet up onto land. A powerful jaw slammed shut on dozens of teeth and air right where his feet had been. The croc splashed back into the canal.
"We go!" Fasi cried, tugging at Monarch as he grabbed the gun.
Up on the walls of the stockade, Monarch saw flashes of light and figures moving. He knew he should fire whatever remaining rounds he had at them.
But something in his gut prevented him from trying to kill teenaged boys even if they were armed and dangerous. Instead, he fired two bursts horizontally about six feet below the top of the wall, forcing them to take cover.
Monarch spun and took off after the pygmy, who was limping hard past the dark hulk of the helicopter. For an instant, he considered jumping inside the bird, seeing if he could get it to turn--
The boy soldiers opened fire from the stockade. Bullets whipped by Monarch's head, slapped at his fleeing heels.
"Slow down there," Claudio said as the last of the other brothers went down the staircase.
"Why?" Robin asked, finishing his second beer. "Things can't get a whole lot worse, can they?"
"Come downstairs, and get your share," Claudio said. "You earned it. We'll talk about the rest later."
Earned it? Earned it how? Through the death of an innocent father? Those acid thoughts churned in Robin's head as he followed Claudio into the inner sanctum of the Brotherhood of Thieves. The walls were decorated with nude pinups and posters of motorcycles and cars. Julio stood behind a table at the far end of the basement below a painting of the tattoo they all wore. The other members of La Fraternidad were taking their places on benches facing Julio, who was untying the plastic grocery bags.
Julio looked out at the Brothers, appearing to acknowledge every one of them except Claudio and Robin, before he lifted the grocery bag, dumped the contents on the table, and said, "All jewels."
The other thieves erupted in gasps, claps, and cries of wonder.
"How did you do it, Julio?" one of the other thieves called out.
"Like you do any great job," Julio replied, and then pointed at his head. "You think. You plan. You execute. You follow the eighteen rules and you--"
Robin cut him off, shouting from the back of the room, "You are so full of shit, man. Completely so full of shit!"
Claudio grabbed him, said, "Calm down."
Robin wrenched free and stormed toward the front saying, "You had nothing to do with this except fucking things up, Julio. And now I suppose you're going to demand a bigger share as a reward for being a complete drunken gun-happy fuck-up who could get us sent to prison for life!"
Monarch dodged over a rise, and sprinted down toward a beach several hundred yards from the fortress. Behind him he heard the gate being lowered.
"Find them, Gahji!" Lieutenant Zed roared. "Bring me back that stone!"
Hearing the creaking noise of the bridge being extended, Monarch hit the beach and ran toward Fasi, who was already pushing a dugout into the water. Tossing the gun on the bottom of the big canoe, he climbed in on his knees. There was a push-pole lying in the canoe bottom, but the pygmy handed him a crude paddle to use instead. The eastern sky was quickly softening toward dawn. It would be daylight soon enough, and there was no doubt they'd be spotted out there on the open lake.
Monarch put his back into it, knifing the paddle down into the water, and pulling it through in a J-stroke he'd learned from SEALs when he was in the U.S. Special Forces. Again and again, he stabbed the water and pulled, feeling the heavy dugout begin to pick up speed and glide.
He could hear shouting now and looked over to see a mass of dark figures coming across the bridge. A few were already past the helicopter.
"How many canoes are back there on the beach, Fasi?" Monarch grunted as he switched the paddle to the opposite side and stroked again.
"Eight or nine," the pygmy replied. "But it will take them a while to find the paddles. I threw most of them in the lake."
Monarch decided he liked the little man very much.
They were less than three hundred yards offshore when the first of Lieutenant Zed's boys reached the beach, spotted them out there on the moonlit lake, silhouetted against the gathering dawn. A shout went up, and then bullets swept after them like a thunderstorm's pelting rain.
Julio's eyes had gone hard and cold. "What did you just say?"
"Nothing," Claudio yelled. "He's just--"
"Done!" Robin shouted at the gang leader. "Done listening to how you're the brains, the greatest. Done letting you take so much of my take. And most definitely done listening to your lies."
Robin looked around at his brother thieves. "Claudio figured this whole thing out. Claudio. The only thing Julio did was find some tanks of acetylene gas and a bottle of rum that he drank while Claudio and I were risking everything."
"I killed a man," Julio snarled. "Or did you forget that?"
"Kill?" The room was suddenly echoing that.
"How could I forget you were drunk and decided to shoot a man in cold blood?" Robin shot back.
"He saw us," Julio hissed. "There was nothing else I could do."
"He saw us because you didn't tie his wrists right," Robin said. "This is just another case of you being drunk and fucking up."
"Name one other," Julio said.
"That girl we kidnapped a couple of years ago," Robin said. "The one who escaped and stole back her ransom money because you were too drunk to--"
Julio was aiming the pistol right at Robin's head.
More shots. More bullets ripped the water around the canoe. Monarch heard one hit, splintering the wood right behind him.
Like a racehorse under a whip, he pulled with every ounce of strength, over and over again, trying to put distance between them and the bullets.
The wind came up at his back, helping to take them finally out of range. The shots were fewer behind them and the bullets fell harmlessly on the water. But even as the sky turned a brilliant red, Monarch kept up his relentless paddling, and was now able to see the southern shoreline of the lake ahead of him a mile or so. They'd get there, and then hike south, eight, nine miles? And Barnett? Had she heard his last transmission?
"American, look behind you!" Fasi cried.
For the first time in many minutes, Monarch looked to his rear. There were three canoes on the lake back there almost six hundred yards. There were at least five boys in each canoe, all of them paddling hard.
Monarch was swinging his attention away from them and caught movement in the trees. Bands of boy soldiers were running along the shoreline, trying to cut them off.
"I knew you hit me!" Julio roared at Robin. "You let that little bitch go, and stole the ransom money!"
The leader of La Fraternidad glared at Claudio. "You lied to me too, told me no way Robin did that, that I just drank too much. You're part of it. You!"
"Julio..." Claudio began.
"Shut up, traitor," Julio said, now swinging the gun back and forth between Claudio and Robin. "Empty your pockets or I'll shoot you like I did the cleaner."
They hesitated. Julio cocked the hammer on the pistol. "Do it."
Claudio reached in and got the four gold ingots, put them on the table.
"Lying thief," Julio said in disgust. "I knew you were trying to blind me while you got them from that safe."
"Robin's right," Claudio shot back. "You've been taking too much."
Julio tilted his head. "So what, you want a revolution?" He looked to the other thieves. "Against the one who helped rescue all of you from the garbage heaps?"
The other thieves were shaking their heads, none willing to come to Robin and Claudio's side on this count, especially with Julio drunk, pissed, and armed, having already shot one man tonight.
Julio smiled bitterly at Robin and Claudio. "I know you think you're smarter than me, but I read, brothers." He had the gun pointed at Robin again. "You know how great men stay in power, men who lead for year upon year, decades?"
"I know dictators eliminate their enemies," Robin said, glaring at the gun.
Julio's anger returned. "That's right. They do."
"So you just going to shoot us, is that it?" Robin said. "Right here in front of everyone?"
"You broke rules," Julio said. "You got to be punished or no one will listen to me ever again."
"But like this? With me having no chance to defend myself? Like the cleaner tonight? Is that how you like it now? Shooting defenseless people?"
Julio's face turned beet red, but he did not lower the pistol. "You want a chance? Is that it? To what, fight me?"
To Robin it was clearly a better alternative; he'd rather have a chance than no chance at all. "Yes," he said. "I want to fight you for control of La Fraternidad."
At first Julio looked insulted, but then grinned wickedly, said, "You know, I like that better in so many ways." He glanced at the other brothers, gestured with his chin at Claudio. "Tie up this traitor up." Then he looked back at Robin, and said, "And give this dead thief a knife."
The wind shifted broadside to the canoe when they were less than two hundred yards shy of land. The boys running on the lake's southern shoreline were at least a half mile shy of cutting them off. But the three dugouts were closing hard behind them. Monarch glanced over his shoulder, and saw Gahji in the front of the closest dugout, about three hundred yards back. He was trying to aim.
"Go left!" Fasi screamed.
"What?" Monarch said, whipping his head around and feeling like the diamond in the knapsack on his back was like a bull's-eye.
"East," the pygmy insisted. "Go in there."
Monarch looked left, seeing heavy weeds on the water that became a wall of reeds far out from shore.
"How deep's the water in there?" Monarch yelled. He cut his paddle to turn the dugout toward the marsh.
"That's the point," Fasi yelled. "You and me with this pole to push us, no problem. But five in the canoe, they're in--"
A burst of gunfire cut him off. Bullets spit and sliced the water to their right. Monarch drove them forward into the lilies, heading toward the flooded marsh. Ten strokes later his paddle hit bottom.
Fasi was already handing him the push pole. Monarch stood, grabbed the pole, stabbed it into the mud, and heaved himself against it before another burst ripped the lily pads to their left.
"Shoot at them!" Monarch shouted.
The pygmy scrambled back toward him, grabbed up the gun, showed only a moment's hesitation before leaning out, aiming around Monarch, and pulling the trigger. The recoil threw Fasi and the gun out of the canoe.
"Shit," Monarch said, crouched as he went by and grabbed the little man by the back of his shirt, heaved him and the gun, now coated in muck, into the bottom of the dugout.
He got two more solid pushes and they were almost to the high marsh grass. Fasi was up on all fours. He wiped the mud from his eyes, said, "There!"
Monarch saw the narrow channel of the water and pushed again, and once more. The dugout hit deeper water and accelerated just in time.
Bullets slashed at the grass and reeds that swallowed them. He could hear shouts behind them and more shots. But they were harmless, just a waste of ammunition. Fasi lifted a machete Monarch hadn't noticed before and slashed at the branches that blocked their way. In less than two minutes, Monarch had almost poled them to shore. He heard cursing behind them that intensified. Carrying the machete, Fasi scrambled out onto drier ground with Monarch close behind him, carrying the mud-caked AK-47. Up on the bank, he paused to look back over the high grass toward the lake.
Two of the dugout canoes had foundered in the mud. Several of the boy soldiers had jumped overboard, trying to pull the dugouts back to open water, and were stuck as well. But the third canoe, Gahji's, looked like it had never gone toward the marsh at all, and he and his paddlers were now less than one hundred and fifty yards from land.
"Come," Fasi said, and pulled Monarch after him into the jungle.
Robin held a double-edged fighting knife in his right hand and used it to track Julio's movements. The other thieves had pulled the benches back and crowded the basement walls. Claudio had been bound and thrown on the ground in the corner.
"So you think you can cut Julio?" the gang leader sneered, his gold tooth gleaming. "You think you are big and strong enough to take control of La Fraternidad. My Brotherhood?"
Robin kept the knife pointed right at Julio's chest, just the way Julio had taught him. "About to find out," he replied.
"Ahh, my little thieving idiot," Julio said, playing to the crowd before lashing out at Robin with a vicious backhand strike.
Robin was quick, but not quick enough. Julio's knife flayed a three-inch gash on his right bicep. Blood spurted and ran down his arm. Some of the brothers were cheering Julio now, and Robin understood Julio's strategy: Cut my weapon arm as often as possible, cripple me, and then finish me.
He felt the blood running onto his hand, making it more difficult to hold his knife. Julio sensed it, leered at him, and said, "You should have taken the bullet when you had the chance."
The pygmy had some kind of internal compass.
Monarch realized this within five minutes of entering the rain forest. To Monarch the jungle proved a three-dimensional maze that left him feeling directionless, and clawed at by dripping vegetation, vines, and the exposed roots of trees that grew a hundred feet or more, up through several canopies toward the light and the sky.
But it all seemed familiar to Fasi, who pushed on, clambering around and over obstacles, cutting through the vines and thorns that blocked their way. Monarch kept checking the compass function in his watch, and was amazed that the needle hardly wavered off of a southeast heading.
"Shouldn't we be going straight south?" he asked at one point.
"Soon," the pygmy gasped. He was moving quickly, but there was a definite limp in his stride.
Monarch looked behind him, realized that they were leaving strong evidence of their passing: broken branches, crushed ferns, and turned rocks.
He'd no sooner had that thought than in the distance to his west he heard a bird call that didn't sound quite right. And then another from due east. And a third that was directly behind them, not far north, maybe two hundred yards.
Gahji was on their trail. And he had other experienced hunters with him.
Fasi seemed to realize it as well, and started pushing himself, slashing forward, and then turning and grinning. "It's ahead here fifty yards," he whispered. "The main trail. We'll move much faster now."
"Give me the machete," Monarch said in a low, urgent voice.
The slash to Robin's upper right arm was deeper than he'd thought at first. It burned now as well as bled. There was no doubt about it. The arm was weakening. Julio must have seen that, because he started to strut and broke into a big grin.
"You feeling it now, my brother," Julio boasted. "That's just the beginning. You gonna die from thousand little cuts like that, my little thieving idiot. The last one's gonna be your throat. Ear to ear. Brand new smile."
Whether it was from the blood loss or the beers he'd drunk so fast or the rush of adrenaline, Robin's vision started to tunnel. He no longer saw Claudio on the floor in the corner, or any of other gang members. There was just blood-lusting Julio standing between him and life.
The gang leader feinted and then slashed upward and diagonally, just missing Robin's belly, but the tip caught his right bicep high near his shoulder, the second cut there. The pain was white-hot, and Robin started to fear that death was staring him in the face.
To confuse Gahji and the other boys hunting them, Monarch cut out the suggestion of multiple side trails with the machete. Then he and Fasi took care to leave no trace as they worked their way to the trail to the lower lake. They ran the entire way, almost two hours, stopping only to drink in streams they crossed, hearing no evidence of anyone still following them.
At each stream crossing, however, Monarch dunked the mud-coated AK-47 until the banana clip released and the bolt opened. He got the live shell out of the chamber, and let water flow through the barrel, the action, and the clip after emptying it of the last five rounds. Wasn't the best way to clean a gun, but it would work. Or at least it should.
About an hour and a half into the journey, Monarch thought he heard the thump of a helicopter somewhere far behind them to the north. That had to have been the chopper Lieutenant Zed had called in to ferry the diamond experts out. Monarch expected his own rescue to come from the southeast.
But what if Lieutenant Zed commandeered the helicopter?
That seemed the rebel leader's most likely course of action. He called softly to Fasi, "How far to that lake?"
"Not far," the pygmy called back. "Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. No more."
Robin almost succumbed to fear, almost let it make him believe that he had no hope of survival. Then he almost gave in to blind anger, almost went crazy, and on the offense.
But something held him back.
Robin had trained with a knife, but had never fought with one. Julio, to Robin's knowledge, had never killed a man before this evening. But he had seen Julio in many knife fights where the object was to cut your opponent, but not kill him. The leader of La Fraternidad was an expert, and he looked ready to take his game to a whole other level, feinting, looking for another opportunity to strike.
Then Robin heard the voice of his dead mother saying, "Sometimes the greatest strength is acting weak."
His tunnel vision faded. Robin was suddenly aware of everything, the smell of his blood, the smell of sweat, the other brothers roaring their approval at Julio, and Claudio watching him like he was his last best hope.
Sometimes the greatest strength is acting weak.
Thunder rumbled close and the air was filled with the scent of approaching rain when Monarch hit the narrow shoreline of the lower lake, hard on the heels of Fasi, who was gasping and dripping with sweat. The pygmy waded out into the water and sat in it, splashing his face, ignoring the lightning in the distance.
Monarch wanted to go in there with him, wanted to get all the grime and sweat off him, but his training would not let him. Instead he found a good position where he could watch the pygmy, the southeastern horizon, and their back trail.
Less than five minutes later, he saw a wall of rain coming from the south, and was surprised when a helicopter burst out of that wall. He checked his watch. Ten minutes early.
Fasi started to wade back toward shore. Monarch looked around, saw no logical place for the helicopter to land. The shoreline was too narrow and the jungle up against it too thick.
"Stay here for now," Monarch yelled at Fasi. "They'll lower a rope or a basket."
"Basket or rope?" the pygmy said, looking worried.
By this time, Monarch could clearly see the helicopter, a big construction chopper. Gloria Barnett sat in the copilot's seat, a tall, redheaded woman. The bay door was open behind her. John "Tats" Tatupu, the huge Samoan-American who'd become an integral part of his team, was leaning out, looking for him.
Monarch stepped out into the water, signaled to Tats that they'd need an active pickup. Just as the rain caught up with them, the pilot hovered the chopper forward and Tats threw two harnesses at Monarch. They landed in the water about six feet offshore.
Fasi retrieved them. Monarch kept the gun under his armpit while working to adjust the harness for such a little man, but got it done and his own harness on quickly. The rain had turned torrential. The helicopter wash was throwing water when Tatupu snaked out the door a heavy rope with loops hanging at intervals off the side.
The pygmy looked more agitated than he had confronting the crocodiles. "I've never been up in the air before," he said.
Monarch reached out and showed Fasi the carabineer attached to his harness, said, "We'll link that to the rope. You'll be fine. Let's go."
But the pygmy was no longer looking at the carabineer, the rope, or the helicopter. He was staring in disbelief past Monarch toward the trail that had led them to their rescue.
Robin acted dull, glanced at the two wounds and the blood running down his right arm and along his ribcage. He tried to flex the arm, and grimaced as if dealing with a racking pain.
"Please, Julio," Robin gasped. "I can't. My arm, it's..."
His right arm was trembling now, quivering in spasm as if Julio's second cut had severed a nerve. Robin struggled to keep his knife pointed at the gang leader. But with every second that passed, his right arm and the knife drooped lower. Robin finally grabbed the knife with his left hand, and heard Julio laugh.
"You gonna fight Julio left-handed?"
Robin made an awkward feint toward the gang leader, who laughed again before going stone cold, the way he'd looked shooting the cleaner at the factory.
Julio jabbed at Robin low, toward his stomach. Robin tried to block it, and took a slice to his forearm. He had been so slow to react that Julio became emboldened. The gang leader made a series of quick feints as he advanced, trying to close the ground, trying for the kill.
Robin backed up, clearly on the defensive, right arm useless. Julio tried to slash diagonally at Robin's torso, left shoulder to right hip.
But this time Robin was quicker.
His left hand shot out, knuckles and the hasp of his knife hitting the inside of the gang leader's right elbow. Julio gritted his teeth, pushed against Robin's left hand, and then stepped in to punch Robin with his free hand.
As Julio swung, Robin released the pressure he had on the gang leader's left elbow, and flicked his knife to his bloody right hand.
Robin took the punch to his stomach. He saw Julio's knife coming to stab him even as he plunged his own blade deep into the neck of the founding jefe of La Fraternidad de Ladrones.
The instant Monarch saw the pygmy's expression change there was no thought, only action. He kicked his own feet out, and twisted hard left as he fell toward the water, pulling the trigger the second his mind registered bodies aiming at him through the pouring rain.
The five-shot burst hit all three of the boy soldiers before Monarch landed on his elbows in the shallow lake water. Two of the boys dropped and floated lifeless, pelted by rain. Gahji lay half in, half out of the water, forty yards down the bank, staring up at the rain, his seventeen-year-old mouth working as if he'd had every bit of wind in the world knocked out of him.
Monarch flashed on an image of Robin on the floor in the basement of La Fraternidad, stabbed in the lung, watching Julio bleed out and his eyes lose light.
Feeling like he was going to be sick, Monarch got up, and splashed through the shallows to Gahji, wanting to help him, hating that he'd had to shoot him. Gahji's eyes found him. Along with hatred in them, Monarch saw a piteous boy who'd been cast adrift, parentless, sucked into a warped life where you could end up like this, bleeding and confused and dying long, long before your time.
"Diamond," Gahji rasped. "Not yours."
"I'm a thief," Monarch explained, moved to tears.
Gahji blinked at the rain, said, "I hope some hell finds..."
The boy soldier's words died in his throat and he stopped blinking at the rain. Monarch was overcome for a moment and he sobbed for Gahji and for Robin, the boy who'd died that night in the basement in Buenos Aires.
Tat's voice boomed to him over the pounding of the rain.
For a moment, Monarch was unable to respond. Then he tore his attention away from the dead boy, looking through the storm to see the big Samoan holding a bullhorn.
"We have fuel issues," Tats said. "It's now or you wait six hours."
Monarch's attention fell to Fasi, who stood knee-deep in the water, back to the chopper, looking as miserable as a wet terrier.
Ever since Monarch was a young boy, he'd developed the ability to compartmentalize, to shove events and thoughts away and lock them. It was the only way he had been able to stay sane.
So he shut off the image of Gahji dying and of Robin dying, and he set off through the water toward the pygmy. He held the little man by the back of the harness as he waded out deeper toward the rope dangling from the helicopter. A solid twelve feet of it writhed on the lake surface.
Monarch snagged the rope, snapped Fasi's carabineer to one of the loops closest to the helicopter, and his own to one of the very last before giving a thumbs-up to Tatupu and the pilot.
The chopper rose slowly. Tats set the winch in motion. The pygmy rose out of the water, riding up into the sky with Monarch lifting below him. Ten feet above the water, he heard Fasi laughing over the noise of the chopper.
The pygmy looked down at Monarch, grinning like a madman.
"Flying!" he yelled. "I'm fly--!"
The flat crack of a rifle reached Monarch at the same time Fasi took the bullet through the throat and slumped and hung from the harness and rope like a marionette without a master.
Monarch's head swung around. Another helicopter hovered in the fog right at the jungle's edge. Lieutenant Zed sat in the open bay door, grinning, lowering the gun to admire his marksmanship before swinging his weapon Monarch's way.
Tatupu fired twice at the rebel leader, driving him deeper inside the helicopter, which banked away into the fog and disappeared as quickly as it had come. Monarch stared after it as he began to rise and fly away into the storm because he could not bear to look at the little body dangling above him.
Two days later...
Monarch sat on a terrace by the pool at the Serena Hotel, trying to numb himself with another rum and tonic. Three had not worked, so he'd ordered a fourth and fifth, which the waiter placed on the table in front of him.
As he started in on the fourth cocktail, Monarch's thoughts gathered darkly on the image of Fasi's corpse hanging above him, and then on the image of himself as Robin, lying on the floor of the basement, and then on an older woman with long iron-gray hair and a kindly face.
Why had the miracle of that woman happened to him, and not to a boy like Gahji? Why had she saved him? So he could shoot three boys and cause the death of an innocent man trying to do the right thing?
He thought about the gray-haired woman and wished she could be here to listen to him, to help him see how he should handle this. But though he kept in contact with her regularly, she knew little of his current life.
Would she even understand? What? That his life was out of balance again? That his wrongs once again outweighed the good things he'd done?
Before he could come up with answers to any of those questions, Gloria Barnett walked up wearing a floppy hat, a long-sleeved blouse, and cotton pants that protected her fair skin and gangly body from the scorching African sun.
She took in the three spent cocktails, the full one on the table, and the one he was drinking.
"Never knew you to do a lot of boozing," she observed, taking a seat beside him
"First time for everything," Monarch said, and drained the drink, signaled to the waiter for another. "You want something?"
"A Tusker," she said. "Cold, please."
The waiter walked away, leaving an awkward silence. Finally, Barnett said, "They have people at the agency who help with this kind of thing."
"You mean being a kid-killer?" he asked sardonically. "Or someone who sacrifices pygmies for the United States of America?"
"Those boys were going to kill you," Barnett shot back. "I had a bird's-eye view, remember? You had no choice. And Fasi made a choice to help you. His people and those boys will be better off because of his sacrifice."
"That right?" Monarch asked sarcastically.
"Yes," she insisted. "Once the Congolese were told about the quality of the diamonds in that mine, they began moving their best troops east to go in there. Zed won't last the month. Those boys will be helped. The pygmies in the area will be helped. And the mine will be nationalized to protect the diamonds for science."
"Which means Fasi's family, what's left of them, will get nothing," Monarch said bitterly. "If I had my way, they'd get it all."
"I know you want to go back in and impose your own sense of justice on the situation, Monarch, but you did your job, and despite everything that happened, you did it brilliantly. We have the diamond. Great good will be done with it now."
Monarch picked up the fifth cocktail, said, "Sorry, but it doesn't feel brilliant to me at all."
"How does it feel then?"
He drank hard off the rum and tonic, said, "Like I'm a conniving thief who somehow always manages to escape with his own skin intact while others suffer the consequences."
"It's all the story you tell yourself," Barnett replied.
"Yeah, well, I think I need a break from this story. From all of this."
"I can give you four days," she said. "Slattery says we're needed in Istanbul by the end of the week."
It was the last thing Monarch wanted. "What's there to steal in Istanbul?"
Barnett finished her beer, said, "I'll let you know when I know and text you the itinerary. We'll fly Friday."
Monarch nodded, but with zero enthusiasm. He had four days to get his head straight, four days to deal with the aftermath of what had happened back there in the jungle.
But how was he supposed to do that? He didn't have his head straight about things that had happened fifteen and twenty years ago. Was he to spend his entire life conflicted about his past?
For years, Monarch had felt good about his life since leaving Buenos Aires and La Fraternidad. As a Special Forces operator and a CIA field agent he'd believed he was using his hard-won skills for a nobler purpose, the good of the U.S. government and the American people.
But the events of the past few days had frayed Monarch's clear purpose to the point of breaking. He knew this feeling, like he was teetering on the rim of a dark precipice. Twice before in his life--the night his parents died, and the night the boy he knew as Robin died--he'd been hurled off cliffs of abysmal change, and yet both times and with help he'd survived and escaped into a new life
Now, for the third time, Monarch felt like he was wobbling on the edge of no going back.
Monarch suddenly understood a cataclysmic break was inevitable. It could happen here in Nairobi, or in Istanbul, or some other city he'd never seen before. But it was coming. No doubt.
So when the waiter came to ask him if he'd like another cocktail, Monarch shook his head and ordered two cups of espresso. When he crossed the line of no going back, he wanted to be sober enough to recognize it, survive, and escape into a new life once more.
ESCAPE ARTIST. Copyright 2012 by Mark Sullivan.