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— ONE —
There was a peculiar stillness in the air, and it made the night seem like a solid mass laid over the low, dusty cityscape. With the balcony windows half open, little of the oppressive, blood-warm heat from the faded day had diminished inside the mansion. Each time Welldone Amadayo moved, he felt his expensive Chinese silk shirt sticking to his back. The temperature, a steady drumbeat of fear, was making him sweat, and he absently ran a long-fingered hand over the dark worry lines of his oval face.
The screen on the wall above his desk was blank except for a blue square surrounding a coiled arrow, which turned in an endless circle as the voice-over-Internet-protocol software in his computer worked to connect him. Amadayo peered at the stubby digital camera clipped to the frame of the screen, watching the slow blink of a crimson light diode. He experienced a moment of brief panic, and his hands fluttered over the shirt, readjusting it in an attempt to portray himself in a more casual fashion. After a moment he gave up and hissed through his teeth. The arrow continued the endless chasing of its own tail.
Amadayo thought about sitting down, then discarded the idea. He glanced at the closed door behind him, then away. Every second of waiting was eroding his calm. He looked through the slatted blinds leading outside to the balcony. Beyond, a soft aura of light was cast from the windows of his home and the watery shimmer of the swimming pool, but the glow petered out as it reached the high walls and acacia trees surrounding his private compound.
Past that lay the clutter of the city of Mogadishu, the scattered specks of illumination in constellations of orange light that escaped from the windows of red-roofed apartment buildings and sodium-lit streets. If he stood there, he might be able to pick out the line of darkness where the seashore began, but Amadayo stayed inside more often these days, and he had an arsenal of lies for anyone who wanted to know the reason why.
Finally, he decided to loosen the shirt, to make himself look as if he were completely relaxed. He sat and stared into the camera, schooling his expression, glimpsing his reflection in the dark portions of the screen. He was experienced at this sort of thing, he reminded himself. There was no reason to be concerned.
The turning arrow vanished and the blinking red light became a steady green. Suddenly there was a white man on the screen, outlined against a wide room made of yellow Italian stone. Shafts of daylight from a setting sun cut across the background. “Mr. Amadayo,” began the man. “Greetings.”
“Doctor,” Amadayo corrected him automatically. He had paid a good amount for the framed university degree hanging on his wall, and it was second nature for him to remind anyone who addressed him as that. “Mr. Brett. A pleasure, as always.” He showed a practiced grin.
Brett inclined his head, his eyes flicking away to glance at something that the camera on his end didn’t show, then back once more. “Dr. Amadayo,” he began again. “Forgive me for disrupting your evening, but as I am sure you understand, my employers are eager to communicate their concerns to you. And you have been rather difficult to reach over recent weeks.” Brett’s accent was like the BBC World Service radio broadcasts Amadayo had listened to in his youth, every word balanced, cut to length and positioned in exactly the right place. There was a strangely soulless, machine-like quality to the man, which Amadayo found slightly unsettling. His milk-pale face, his straw-like hair and watery blue eyes seemed unnatural. He reminded the Somalian of albino children he had seen in Tanzania, and Amadayo half-wondered if, like them, the Englishman’s body parts would be worth money if made into charms post-mortem.
He nodded and widened his smile for the camera. “It is I who should be begging your forgiveness!” Amadayo faked a contrite tone. He shook his head. “So much work to be done here, you know? So many people with needs to be dealt with and hands held out. It takes up all of my time.”
“That is why we agreed to have you work as our representative in Somalia, because of your connections,” said Brett. Personally, Amadayo had always thought of himself as a partner more than an employee, but he let that go for the moment. “But we are concerned about a lack of visible progress.”
“Oh?” Amadayo raised an eyebrow. Outwardly he maintained an air of quiet concern, but his heart was racing. The shirt stuck to his back like a second skin. “I have done everything the Combine has asked of me—”
“We prefer you not to use that name again,” Brett snapped, with a wince.
Amadayo bristled at the Englishman’s tone and pressed on, masking his worry with a rising anger. “How long have I been helping you in my nation? Your past transactions in Puntland and elsewhere—who ensured that those would proceed without issue?”
“And you have been paid handsomely for your brokerage,” came the reply, “That guarded compound where you sit? My employer’s money made it possible for you to live in such luxury. And safety.”
There was a threat buried in the words, but Amadayo didn’t waste time on it. This man was half a world away, and the things that Amadayo did fear were far closer than he was.
But then Brett looked out of the screen at him, and it was as if the pale man reached into his thoughts and pulled that fear out across the distance. “You enjoy your comfortable life, doctor. You like to say you are the man who knows all the names, the one with a friend in every town and village. But how much of that is true?” He came closer until his face nearly filled the screen. “You promised stability. You told my employers your influence could make that happen. But it has not.”
Amadayo blinked, briefly lost for words.
When Brett spoke again, the cultured accent had become acidic and accusatory. “You were employed because you pledged to bring us some measure of constancy in that cesspool of a country. But somehow, despite all your promises, despite all the people you claim to hold sway over, terrorism and piracy are on the increase once again. How is that possible, if you are working so hard for us?”
“I—” Amadayo sucked in a breath and marshalled a tirade to throw back at the pale foreigner. But before he could shape it, a crackling ripple of noise reached his ears. Gunfire, close at hand.
He bolted from the chair and took two quick steps toward the balcony door, in time to catch the sound of an echoing crash from the front gate. Amadayo gingerly leaned out and saw flashlights bobbing at the far end of the sandy driveway. A handful of his security men were sprinting in the direction of the commotion.
Looking down, he found a lanky guard with an AK-47 assault rifle circling warily around the edge of the poolside two stories below. Amadayo shouted out an urgent cry in the local Benadir dialect. “You! Tell me what is going on out here!”
The guard halted and showed him a shrug. “Not sure, doctor-sir. Someone at the gate, but I don’t know—” The younger man’s words mingled with a low subsonic crack that cut him off mid-thought, as half of his face was abruptly ripped away in a fluid jet of crimson. The guard tottered and tumbled into the pool, a gush of blood staining the grubby tiles and clouding the water.
More shots rose in a chorus and Amadayo tore his gaze from the dead man in time to see the gate crumple as a cattle truck rammed it open. Yellow sparks of muzzle flare erupted all along the line of the acacias and Amadayo flinched, ducking back into the room.
“What was that noise?” Brett asked lazily.
Amadayo tore a drawer from a nearby cabinet and pulled an old World War II-vintage Tokarev pistol from among the papers inside. He kneaded the weapon and spun in place to glare at the little camera. “You have done this?” He stalked toward the screen, wishing it was a window through which he could send a bullet. “You sent them?”
“Sent who?” The Englishman didn’t show the slightest flicker of alarm. He sat and watched as if he were in the audience at a theater, indifferently observing some uninvolving drama.
A random spray of automatic fire hosed across the stone balustrade outside and splintered the wooden balcony doors, causing Amadayo to cry out. Spurred into motion by the shots, he ran across the room and levered open a trapdoor in the floor. Beneath it was a safe, and inside that a bag containing a few gold bars, wads of American dollars and forged identity papers. Amadayo stared at the bag, knowing what it represented. If he removed it, it would be tantamount to admitting defeat, like a pilot taking a parachute before abandoning his aircraft to smash into a hillside.
The shooting outside tailed off to nothing, and Amadayo heard the low, indistinct rumble of a man’s voice. He held his breath, straining to listen.
* * *
After the gate was breached and the initial exchange of automatic fire ended, a dangerous, loaded silence descended on the compound. The bulk of Amadayo’s guards were Yemeni, ex-military who had fled the civil war in their own country and crossed the Gulf of Aden in search of better odds. The doctor thought that made them a smarter choice for his protection detail than the locals: they were trained soldiers but also lacked connections to the web of clan obligations and rivalries that were a matter of course for his fellow Somalis. They could keep him safe from the criminals who took issue with his actions, or the Al Shabaab militants who considered him an ungodly apostate. But what he had failed to take into account was that these men were also survivors, who knew full well when the deck was stacked against them.
The guards drew back into cover behind lines of ornamental planters and low stone walls, weighing their chances. Half their number had already been killed in the opening exchange.
The cattle truck that had rammed the gate retreated and dozens of armed men flowed in through the gap it left. They toted beaten, battle-worn versions of the same Kalashnikov rifles that the guards carried, one or two sporting grimy rocket-propelled grenade launchers or PKM machine guns with heavy box magazines. At first glance they resembled the gangs who prowled the lawless provinces, or the burcad badeed pirates from outside the city—but unlike those rabble they moved with something approaching self-control. The Yemeni guards had expected shouting and wildfire shooting, but not discipline.
The invaders’ ranks parted to allow their commander to advance into view. Heavyset, he was a densely muscled street fighter with a broken nose and a face that shone like polished teak. A curved scar began at the right corner of his mouth and described a semicircle up his cheek to end above the brow, with the effect of permanently pulling his expression into a narrow glare. The iris of his right eye was damaged, permanently wide and black like a shark’s. He marched slowly up the driveway, the heavy iron ingot of a Desert Eagle semi-automatic dangling at the end of his arm, and found a place to stand out in the open.
He took a breath and gestured with the big pistol. “Look at me,” he called. A few wary heads bobbed up from behind cover, vanishing as fast as they had risen. “Who does not know my name?” He cast around, waiting for someone to reply. “Ask those with you, if you do not.” The gun went back into a leather holster strapped across his chest. “Do you want to oppose me? Do you understand what that will mean?”
Thirty meters away, the brother of the youth whose body now floated in the pink water of Amadayo’s swimming pool sighted down his AK-47. He knew the name of the big man.
He knew who he was and what was said about him but, in that moment, his grief was in control. The dead guard’s brother rested the weapon atop a concrete urn and framed the man’s chest in the ring of his rifle’s iron sights. Teeth gritted, he broke the silence with a shot that the poorly maintained gun sent well wide of the mark. Ramaas heard the wasp-drone of the round passing by and glanced after it, making a disgusted face.
The next shot came from one of his men atop the compound’s outer wall, the spindly length of a Dragunov sniper rifle in his hands. The weapon chugged and the guard joined his brother.
Ramaas sighed. “Anyone else?”
Slowly, hands rose and guns clattered to the ground.
Copyright © 2017 by James Swallow