The Boltcutter: Alor
The “Arrivals” area at that East African airport consisted of one small room. After each flight, bodies packed it. One of the four ceiling fans turned slowly, uncertainly, a fair wobble as it rotated. The other three showed no signs of life. Each body in that room sweltered; most also sweat. Three lines had formed on one side of the room and a cluster on the other. The lines led to passport control. The cluster watched luggage tossed into a pile in the centre of the room.
He only had his two carry-on pieces: a rather large backpack and a messenger bag. He stood in the “Other” line while most stood in the “Visa” line. The gentleman in front of him argued. He was in the UN. He didn’t need a visa. The thug in the suit (a very nice suit, and much more fashionable than the uniforms worn by the other thugs at passport control) ignored his protestations and refused to return his passport.
“One hundred dollars.” He had repeated that as an answer for every argument UN Guy voiced. Sure, the thug worked for the government, but damned if he’d take its currency. American dollars, post-2008, crisp and clean and no sign of wear, only 100s–he made certain UN Guy understood this.
Ignoring UN Guy wailing to someone on his cell phone, Reno offered his passport to the be-suited thug.
“Mister Reno, you need a visa.” Suit-Thug pronounced the name as though Reno were in the old west, a gambler, or an American city. No one ever read it right.
“Page twenty-one,” Reno said.
“It’s no good.” The thug didn’t even bother to look at him. Reno obviously bored him. “You need a visa. One hundred dollars American.” He went on about the specifics. Reno already knew them.
What was the point of arguing? From out of his pocket, Reno drew a single, pristine one-hundred dollar US note with only a single fold. Thug took it, slapped a visa in the passport, filled it in from the information on the ‘no good’ visa, stamped it and sent Reno on his way.
Bags had to be searched. Other thugs in other uniforms had to intimidate Reno with their hard looks and sneers. Reno swallowed it all, gave nothing back. He knew their kind and they honestly weren’t worth a bead of sweat.
Passing through the gauntlet left Reno outside. Crossing a road, Reno entered the ‘waiting room,’ an area covered with a hard plastic roof, wavy like corrugated tin. Tables and chairs and vending machines that looked like they had seen worse abuse than the rest of the airport sheltered under this paltry roof.
The country had been independent for five years, autonomous of six before, and the current civil war – the most recent of three decades without peace – had erupted a couple of years back. One really couldn’t expect much, not even at the capital’s international airport.
At one of those plastic tables, sitting in a battered plastic chair, Reno’s fixer waited for him. Abraham Deng, big and bald, used the name Ibrahim whenever he needed to play Muslim. As far as Reno knew, Deng hadn’t been back to this city – to his home country at all – since 2006. Deng didn’t say a word, just gestured to the parking lot with his chin and started walking. Reno followed.
Inside the Prado (right-hand drive so it came from Kenya or Uganda, as likely had its driver) Deng turned the CD player and the AC on. Reno stashed his bags in the back seat and settled into the front.
“Surprised to see you here,” he said to Deng.
“I could say the same.” Leaving the airport, Deng drove straight through the fork. The right would have taken them to the main UN base. Straight took them a lot of places.
“Who are we going to see?” Reno checked the glove compartment. He pulled out a NORINCO knock off of a P220. He did a quick inspection. The piece looked tip top, with a full magazine and one in the chamber.
“You remember Alor? The big captain?”
Reno did. Back when he had ran guns and trained commandos, Captain Alor had been a sadistic military intelligence tough. With arms almost as impressive as his expanding gut, Alor had connections and a willingness to do anything to please. Last Reno had seen him, back in the summer of 2006, Colonel Alor had a future far brighter than his intellect intimated. “You’re working for Alor?”
Deng turned onto the road leading to the main army base, west of the capital. “We are.”
“That remains to be seen.” Reno put the pistol back in the glove compartment. He wanted to carry, but he left it to Deng to make the call.
They still rode smooth. The eight main roads in the capital boasted pavement. The rest turned into muddy swamps when the rains came. Those would come in about two weeks. Reno noticed the lakes cutting through a few of the side roads, meaning some storms had already arrived. Other roads still relatively dry had huge divots – riverbeds really – bisecting them, turning them into obstacle courses for even the stoutest of four-wheel drives. Good luck in anything smaller.
The squat, square structures with thatched roofs denoting a military camp began to increase in frequency to Reno’s left – round huts were civilian and those were few and far between along that road. He could see the gate to the military compound just ahead. “Alor the one that got you back into the country?”
Deng scoffed at this. “I drove in through Uganda. Do you think passport control actually means control?”
“Did you have to pay a hundred bucks?”
The sideways glance meant Deng didn’t know if Reno joked. “I’m on a goddamn Kenyan passport. Damn right I had to pay.”
“You using an alias?”
“You think Deng isn’t one?”
“Touché.” They didn’t turn at the gate. There wasn’t much past the camp. Did Alor have an estate outside of town? Doubtful. Anyone who thought he was anyone lived in the city. “Where are we going?”
“You getting nervous?” Deng smiled. It might look evil to someone who didn’t know Deng well, but to Reno that smile meant mild amusement.
Reno only offered a slight chuckle, his insider chuckle, the one he used when his friends weren’t particularly funny. “Yeah, I’m getting the vapours.”
“Alor’s a major general now, real important, deputy chief and all that.” Deng steered with his knees while he took out a cigarette and lit it. “He has some problems he wants corrected. He wanted us. Remembered us from the North-South wars.”
“I’m a long fucking way from those, man.”
“I’m not far enough.” Deng lowered the driver’s side window without shutting off the AC. Most of his smoke got dragged out. “I don’t know about you, but time has not been kind. I’ve been in some shitty places doing some shitty things. I need to put it all behind me.”
“This’ll do that?”
What came out of Deng wasn’t exactly a growl, but Reno wouldn’t have called it laughter either. “If it doesn’t, nothing will. Somewhere I’ve got a home. I want to go there.”
That sealed it for Reno. He didn’t respect much, not money, not position, not influence. He did respect loyalty. He respected trust. Of the currency of his trade, nothing had a higher value. Deng had done him right on every job they worked together. Reno would do him right on this one. “Do I need the gun?”
Deng frowned, turning his eyes dark, his demeanour deadly. “Maybe.”
Pulling his messenger bag from out of the back seat, Reno stashed the fake SIG in it. He had a special pocket for just such an occasion. “I don’t suppose you have anything else?”
“I’ve got an Uzi and an MP7 in the spare tire well in back. A little bit too obvious for the meet, but if things go south . . .”
Reno pocketed the P220’s two spare magazines. “Yeah, don’t lock the doors, okay?”
The pavement had ended. About five minutes of silence later and they turned right onto a trail. This led to a few walls encompassing the yards of some small homes in the middle of nothing. Off in the distance, a handful of lights run off generators illuminated the city. Deng stopped the vehicle, threw it into park, and tossed his stub of a cigarette out the window. Their soon to be employer stood in front of a black, Mercedes M-Class SUV, flanked by a couple of boys playing badass. Around them: scrub, dirt, and the denizens of the wild.
Reno noted the briefcase on the vehicle’s hood.
“There’s still time for you to duck out of this one.” Deng looked through the windscreen, not meeting Reno’s eyes.
“Like fuck there is.”
Their perspective boss eyed them in their vehicle. Alor looked bloated. Not fat. His face had some flesh and his arms, while big, lacked muscle, but his protruding belly looked bulletproof.
He wore the uniform of the general staff, with all the piping, all the ribbons, all the markings of his rank. This major general, deputy chief of staff in charge of something or other had two bodyguards in camo with red berets standing behind him. Commandos. Reno didn’t know them, but he had trained their like. Some were good men, but the leadership had mostly sent him thugs, men who liked to hurt others.
These two looked of that mould. They held their AKs loose, non-chalant, giving Reno and Deng the insolent eye. We’ll gut you, they tried to project. We’re bad men and we’ll hurt you if we choose.
But Reno knew the lie of it. Need be, he’d have one of those AKs in his hands. Deng would have the other. He exchanged a look with Deng, and tucked his bag under his legs. He didn’t need that weapon when two others offered themselves to him. Deng took the hint and casually slipped out his pistol. Reno only caught a glance of it, but it looked like Deng still favoured the Browning Hi-Power he had carried almost two decades back.
The two exited the Prado. Alor approached Reno first, hand out, a bright smile on his face.
“John, John, I am so glad you came.” Alor never got Reno’s given name correct.
Shaking Alor’s hand, Reno put on a polite smile, the kind of polite smile he had used with men like Alor, a smile Alor might remember. “I’m glad to be of service, sir.”
That made Alor chuckle, and Reno thought he heard real mirth there. “You still have deference, respect. For the rank, yes?” Alor shook off the retort Reno hadn’t been preparing. “I joke, of course.” He turned to Deng. “Abraham, you look good. You had no trouble at the border?”
“No trouble, sir.” Deng’s voice came quiet, subdued, something Reno had never heard before.
If Alor noticed the change in Deng, he didn’t show it. Reno doubted Alor had ever really listened, at least not to them if anyone. He didn’t listen in the 90s when Deng was doing counter-intelligence, he didn’t listen in the “aughts” when Reno was training his “Falcon” Brigade, and he sure as hell hadn’t listened after the truce with the North, when the two of them made their excuses and got clear of him.
Out of the briefcase, Alor took a manila file, lacking markings, thin. He passed it to Reno. “I need this man disappeared. Like you did before, like you did for the government men.”
“That was long ago, sir, during a war,” Reno said. “If this man is an enemy of the state, you have forces and agents that can take care of this. If this is personal, I believe you have the necessary forces to handle one man.”
“No, this is different.” Alor’s smile had gone. “This man, he is a government man. He is from the North, and there are people who protect him. I cannot have my men do this. I need someone from outside.”
“We can do this.” Deng took the folder from Reno. “Do you know my price?”
“I have your record erased,” Alor said. “It is done. There is money also.” He gestured, and one of the bodyguards slung his AK and passed the briefcase. Alor gestured to Deng, and the guard gave it to him. “American dollars, of course. There is more when you do this.”
Deng offered the briefcase to Reno, who took it. Of course there would be no contract, not for this job. No contract would matter if Alor decided to screw them.
“I need this soon.” Alor walked back to the Mercedes. “I must report this done by the end of the week.”
“Three days?” Reno didn’t like tight deadlines, not on a job with so little information.
With one of the guards holding the door open, Alor paused. “You can do it. You have done more. I remember.” And then he was in the SUV, and the door closed. The guards directed harsh glares at the two before they t0o entered the vehicle. A gunned engine, dust raised, and Alor and his men left.
“Are you shitting me?” Reno snarled out the words. “Three days? No questions asked? Who the fuck is this guy you’ve promised we’ll remove?” The passport information page in Alor’s file included both a photo and the name Ahmed Hussein Qassim. “You know this Qassim guy?”
“I know the face.” Deng’s shoulders slumped, his body relaxed. “I’ve heard him called Okema. In Somalia, they call him the Bolt Cutter. He’s a Ugandan who did work in Mogadishu. He’s worked for the Ethiopians, Kenyans, and maybe the French, but not the North. I have heard he is now taking the Americans’ money.”
“A Ugandan working Somalia who’s now the Americans’ boy?” That sounded too crazy, but Reno had encountered crazier. “And we’re going to take care of him for Alor?”
Deng took the briefcase from Reno and slid the folder beneath his arm. “No, we’re going to talk to him and find out why Alor wants him dead.”
As Deng tossed the briefcase in the back, Reno got into the Prado. “Bolt Cutter?”
“I have no idea.”
Reno slid on his safety belt, a strange sensation in that city. “We need more. I think I might know someone who can help.”
The Prado roared with vitality. “I still have some friends.” Deng made the vehicle whine. “I need to get some of my kit. I have a safe house we can use.”
With silence as an answer, Deng bounced the vehicle along the dirt track, jamming into holes and lifting out of them. They didn’t talk much on the drive, Deng focused on the road, Reno focused on the likelihood that Alor planned to betray them.