The C-130 bounced and skidded along a red clay airstrip, tossing Barnie and loose cargo around in the hold where he’d caught a nap. He pulled the black hood from his head and blinked the sleep out of his eyes. His fatigues had been soaked with sweat. The socks inside his boots felt soggy. Wherever he landed, it was warm. The hold was mostly empty, save for a few crates of supplies and weapons.
Hydraulics whined in the aft of the bay, lowering the cargo door. The plane’s engines sputtered and died, and Barnie could hear the noisy sounds of insects and other night life far from where people lived or ought to be. Humid air hit him like he was standing in front of an oven. Sweat trickled down his forehead into his eyes. A sweet, sickening aroma of plant decay filled his nostrils. Was he in a jungle? Rainforest? How long had he been asleep?
Barnie’s sat-phone beeped. He sat up and fumbled through a bag he’d found under the bench. Underneath a change of socks and underwear – a size larger than he actually was – was the phone. He thumbed the call button. A mechanical voice said, “Please do not say anything and hold the line while it is secured.” After a series of chirps, a young man’s voice came on the line. “Hello, Mr. Haskell. You have arrived at your first destination. The people here will help you on your way, and give you further instructions.”
“What people?” Barnie asked. The line already went dead.
The lights in the C-130 went off. A set of floodlights came on from behind the plane, blinding Barnie. He held a hand up to his eyes. About a dozen trucks held lights. People rushed onto the plane and started stripping things off, yanking off panels, pulling out wires and hardware.
One man in black fatigues and a beret walked up to Barnie, helping him to his feet. In the darkness all Barnie could see was a pale, toothy smile that seemed to curl up to dark, burning eyes. The eyes of a lion considering its prey. “Welcome to Africa,” the man said, his accent unfamiliar. Barnie arched an eyebrow. “I will not tell you where we are. It is safer for both of us. Come with me. We have a car taking us to our camp. You may call me Paul.”
Two people walked by, carrying a crate between them. Barnie asked, “Do you intend to strip this whole plane down in one night?”
“Yes,” said Paul. They walked off the plane. Clumps of dry clay crunched under Barnie’s boots. More people ran around, some barking orders, others taking tools to strip off the plane’s fuselage. Paul wasn’t kidding.
“What happens when we get to your camp?” asked Barnie. “I’d like to have an idea of where I’m headed. Nobody’s told me that, yet.”
Paul looked at Barnie’s phone. The smile disappeared from his face. In the floodlights, Barnie could tell the man wasn’t even sweating in the heat. “I do not ask such questions,” said Paul. “I’ve learned to trust the persons at the other end of that phone. Here we are.” Paul pointed to something that looked like a 70’s Ford Bronco with the top and the side windows taken off. The engine, however, sputtered like it was from a Model T.
Barnie sighed. He threw his bag into the back and opened the front passenger door. Behind him, people started shouting. One of Paul’s people had his body halfway through the cockpit hatch, the other on a ladder from the ground. Others hauled him out, along with what had to be one of the pilots, kicking and screaming. They dragged the pilot down the ladder and kicked him until he was quiet.
Two people came from around the far end of the plane carrying another man between them. He wore the same green jumpsuit the first pilot had. They both were dragged towards the edge of the strip.
Two gunshots popped, quieting the jungle.
Barnie left the door open and shoved his way past Paul. He ran down the strip towards the crowd of people standing over the two dead pilots. “What the hell is wrong with you people?” People stared at him, and then went back to the pilots’ bodies.
Paul caught up. “We have to get going.” Barnie opened his mouth. Paul cut him off. “These people do not speak your language. Yelling at them will do no good.”
“You give me a good reason why I should go anywhere with you,” said Barnie, giving Paul a shove. It earned him a glare that made a few of the others stop looting.
“As long as the voice at the other end of that phone wants you alive, you are safe with me. I must take you from here quickly. You will come with me as you are, or you will come tied up in the back. Do I make myself clear?”
“Those two people didn’t have to die,” said Barnie. “I said I wasn’t going to be doing any more killing!”
“I do not know who you are, or why you are here,” said Paul. “Where I come from, I do not have the stupidity to think I am better for killing or not killing. There is no choice. I have no choice. I will kill who I must. Your friends have helped me enough that I will kill anyone they need me to kill.” He shouted something and pointed towards the edge of the jungle. A floodlight turned and lit up the area under the bushes. “They are a price that needs to be paid. For my life. For your freedom. And your vanity.”
Barnie recoiled as he saw a pile of bodies lying in a pile just inside the treeline. Men and women of different ages, their corpses only hours old, had been shot and piled up. Something in Barnie’s stomach heaved. He choked it down. This was the exact sort of thing he’d been fighting against.
There wasn’t anything so vile that a person wouldn’t do it to someone else. Every person lying open under the sky had a name, a belonging to someone and someplace else. Their lives were more than just ink or electrons or numbers rattled off in front of a microphone.
After a while, it became easy to forget. Bodies lined up didn’t seem real. They disappeared, becoming ink on paper, blotches of color on a computer screen. Memory allowed them to fade like it didn’t really happen. These people lasted just as long as the breath of a spoken word got swallowed by the wind. Something had to make make Barnie remember. He would remember.
A glint of light on glass caught Barnie’s attention. The wrist of a dead man. A watch, one of those novelties with the cartoon mouse and the hands pointing out the time. Spots of blood smeared on the band. Barnie went over, grabbed the wrist, and untied the watch. Some of the others laughed, but faded when they saw Paul glaring.
Barnie put the watch on and said, “I’ll go with you. For now at least.” He looked at the watch, wiping the blood off the face. “I won’t forget you,” he muttered, a promise to something that couldn’t hear him. It would have to do.