• West Africa. The Island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea. Wednesday, June 2. 4:30 P.M.
Nicholas Marten knew they were being watched. But by whom or how many, there was no way to tell. He glanced at Father Willy Dorhn, his walking companion, as if for an answer, but the tall, razor-thin, seventy-eight-year-old German-born priest said nothing. They kept on, ducking through overgrowth, crossing narrow, fast-running streams, following a dense, nearly invisible trail that snaked through the rain forest.
Now the track turned upward and they climbed higher. It was hot, easily a hundred degrees, maybe more. The humidity made it seem worse. Marten wiped sweat from his neck and forehead, then swatted at the cloud of mosquitoes that had haunted them from the start. Every piece of clothing stuck to him. The stench of plant life was overwhelming, like an intense perfume from which there was no escape. The sharp cries of tropical birds rang through the leafy, sun-blocking canopy above, far louder and more shrill than he imagined any natural sound could be. Still Father Willy, Willy as he’d asked to be called, said nothing, just continued on, walking a trail he plainly knew so well from his half century on the island that his feet seemed to make all the decisions.
Finally he spoke. “I don’t know you at all, Mr. Marten,” he said without looking at him. Spanish was the official language of Equatorial Guinea, but he used English when talking to Marten. “Soon I will have to decide if I can trust you. I hope you understand.”
“I understand,” Marten said, and they hiked on. Minutes passed, and then he heard a low, rumbling sound he couldn’t place. Little by little it intensified, drowning out the sounds of the birds and becoming very nearly a roar. Then he knew. Waterfalls! In the next seconds they rounded a bend in the trail and stopped before a cascade of falls that thundered past them in a rising mist to disappear into the jungle a thousand feet below. Willy stared at the spectacle for a long moment, then slowly turned to Marten.
“My brother told me you were coming, to expect you,” he said over the roar of the water. “Yet he has never met you. Never talked with you. So whether you are the man he told me about or someone else who has taken his place, I have no way to know.”
“All I can tell you,” Marten said, “is that I was asked to come to see you. To listen to what you have to say and then to go home. I know very little more than that, except that you think there is trouble here.”
The priest studied Marten carefully, still unsure of him. “Where is this ‘home’?”
“A city in the north of England.”
“You are American.”
“Was. I’m an expat. I carry a British passport.”
“You are a reporter.”
“A landscape architect.”
“Then why you?”
“A friend who indirectly knows your brother asked me to come.”
“He is a reporter.”
“No, a politician.”
Willy’s eyes found Marten’s and held there. “Whoever you are, I will have to trust you, because I fear my time is increasingly short. Besides, there is no one else.”
“You can trust me,” Marten said, and then looked around. They seemed wholly alone, yet he still had the sense they were being watched.
“They have gone,” Willy said quietly. “Fang tribesmen. Good friends. They followed us for a time until I assured them I was alright. They will make certain no one else comes.” Abruptly he reached inside his priest’s frock and took out a letter-sized envelope. He flicked it open, slid out several folded pages and held them unopened in his hand. “What do you know of Equatorial Guinea?”
“Not much. Just what I read on the plane. It’s a small, very poor country run by a dictator-president named Francisco Tiombe. In the last decade oil was discovered and—”
“Francisco Tiombe,” Willy cut him off angrily, “is the head of a brutal, ruthless family who consider themselves royal but are not. Tiombe killed the former president, his own cousin, in order to gain power and reap the riches from oil leases. And rich he is, enormously rich. He recently bought a mansion in California for forty million U.S. dollars, and that is only one of a half dozen he has around the world. The trouble is he has chosen not to share that wealth with the masses who remain poorer than poor.” Willy’s passion grew deeper.
“They have nothing, Mr. Marten. The few jobs, when they can find them, are pennies-a-day labor and selling what little food they can grow or fish they can catch. Safe drinking water is like gold and is sold as if it were. Electricity, in the villages that have it, goes on, then off. Mostly it is off. Medical facilities are laughable. Schools barely exist. For any kind of decent life at all, there is no hope.” Willy’s eyes bore into Marten. “People are angry. Violence has flared often and is getting worse. Government troops react to it with savage, repeated, unspeakable cruelty. So far it has been limited to the mainland and nothing has yet happened in Bioko, but fear is in the air everywhere and people are certain it will soon spread here. At the same time, there has been a large influx of oil workers. Most are from an American company called AG Striker. It is as if something big is happening or is about to happen, but no one knows what it is. Because of the violence, Striker has brought in mercenary soldiers from a private military company known as SimCo to protect its people and facilities.”
Suddenly Willy held up the pages he’d taken from the envelope and one by one opened them. They were color photographs printed on computer paper with an electronic date stamp in the lower right-hand corner. The first showed the main entry to a large oil exploration work area. The grounds were enclosed by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Armed, uniformed men stood guard at the entry gate.
“These are local men, lucky enough to have been hired and trained to guard the compound by the mercenaries. If you look carefully”—Willy slid a thin forefinger across the photograph to pinpoint two muscular Caucasian men with buzz-cut hair, wearing tight black T-shirts, camouflage pants, and wraparound sunglasses standing in the background—“these are two of the SimCo men who trained them. Here is a computer-enhanced closer look at them.” Willy showed Marten the second page.
The two men were seen clearly. The first was big and brawny and had singularly flat ears that barely stuck out from his head. The second was thin and wiry and noticeably taller.
“I have been an amateur photographer for more than seventy years. In that time I have eagerly stayed abreast of the most current technology. My camera is digital. When the electricity comes I transfer the images to my computer and make prints like these. I have taught many in the local community about photography.”
“I don’t understand.”
“One night a young native boy asked to borrow my camera. He had done it before, and so I let him take it again. Then I became curious about what he was doing and asked him. ‘Big bird in jungle,’ he said, ‘come very early almost every day to different places. Tomorrow I know where it come.’ What kind of big bird? I asked. He said, ‘Come and see,’ and I went with him.”
Now Willy opened the third folded page. It was a photograph of a jungle-green, unmarked helicopter set down in a forest clearing at daybreak. Several men were in the doorway helping unload crates to a half-dozen natives who, in turn, were loading them into an old open-bed truck.
Willy showed Marten the next photograph. A close-up of two of the men in the helicopter doorway.
“Same men guarding the oil interests,” Marten said.
Willy’s fingers slid open the next photograph: an enhanced close-up of the truck revealing supplies that had been opened for inspection. Clearly seen was a case of assault rifles, another with ammunition, another with a dozen or more three- to four-foot-long tubular pieces that looked like handheld rocket grenade launchers, and several cases of what appeared to be the rockets themselves. In the upper right-hand corner, another man, a third Caucasian in black T-shirt and camouflage fatigues, was clearly seen. He was tall with short hair and chiseled features and was a good ten years older than the first two.
“The guns are AK-47s. The natives are Fang and Bubi tribesmen involved in a growing, organized insurrection against the government. Already more than six hundred people have been killed, mostly natives but also a small number of oil people.”
“You mean the same men hired to protect the oil workers are arming a revolt against them?” Marten was astonished.
“So it seems.”
“It’s not for me to say, Mr. Marten. But I would assume it is the reason you have come. To find out.” Suddenly Willy took a cigarette lighter from his jacket. “I gave up smoking thirty-two years, four months, and seven days ago. The lighter still gives me comfort.” Abruptly his thumb slid over the top of it. There was a click and flame burst from its snout. Seconds later the paper photographs flared up. As quickly Willy dropped them on the ground and watched them turn to ash, then he looked to Marten.
“It’s time we go back. I have evening services.” Abruptly he turned and led Nicholas Marten back down the trail the way they had come.
Some twenty minutes later they neared the end of it. They could see the dirt road they had walked up from the village and the steeple of Willy’s small wooden church reaching over the tree line. Overhead, a monkey swung from tree limb to tree limb. Another followed. Then both stopped and looked down at the men below, chattering wildly as they did. Tropical birds screeched in reply, and for a moment the entire rain forest seemed to come alive at fever pitch. As quickly it stopped. A few seconds later heavy rain began to fall. Another thirty and it became a torrential downpour.
Then they were at trail’s end turning onto the road that had now turned to mud. For the first time since they left the cascade of falls Willy spoke.
“I trusted you, Mr. Marten, because I had to. I could not give you the photographs because there is no way to know who you might run into when we part. Hopefully, you have clear memories of what you have seen and what I have told you. Take that information with you and leave Bioko as quickly as you can. My brother is in Berlin. He is a very capable man. I hope that by the time you reach him neither he nor your American politician friend will have need for you to tell them any of this. Tell them anyway. Perhaps something can be done before it is too late. Purposeful war is being made here, Mr. Marten, for reasons I don’t know. There will be more of it, and with it will come terrible bloodshed and immense suffering. Of that I am certain.”
“Padre! Padre!” The voices of alarmed children suddenly rang out of nowhere. The men looked up to see two tribal boys, maybe ten or twelve years old, running toward them down the mud-slick road.
“Padre! Padre!” They cried out again in unison. “Padre! Padre!” At the same time the sharp crackle of automatic-weapons fire erupted from the direction of the village behind them.
“Oh Lord, no!” Willy spat loudly and started toward the children as rapidly as his aging body would take him. In the next instant an open-bed army truck filled with heavily armed troops came around a bend. A second truck was right behind it. Marten started after him on the dead run. Father Willy must have sensed what he was doing because he suddenly turned and looked back, his eyes wide with fear.
“No!” he yelled. “Go back! Tell them what you have seen! Run! Into the jungle! Run for your life!”
Copyright © 2009 by Allan Folsom