The Boltcutter: Intrigue
They had turned onto an exceptionally wide track – Reno had stopped calling them roads – and Deng pointed along their route. “I’ve got a place right there, next to the construction . . .”
Deng’s voice trailed off. Reno scanned the construction site – Deng surely had noticed something. They took the next left, onto a smaller track, only wide enough for people to walk past the Prada as it inched along the divots and fissures.
“I saw a man on the second floor with binoculars,” Deng said.
“Guy on the roof lying flat, something beside him,” Reno said. “Sorry buddy, but that might be a house, but I’d question the safe.”
“Only one man knew of that safehouse.” Deng parked.
“Yeah, maybe you only dealt with one man, but who’d he deal with?” Reno slid the SIG into his waistband and the magazines into his pocket. “Can I borrow your MP7?”
Deng had his Browning under his shirt. He pulled out a rucksack, a worn, canvas one Reno swore he recognized from the bush in the 90s. “You can take the HK and I’ll take the Uzi. But remember that neither are silenced.”
“Understood.” Reno patted the SIG. “For my nerves.”
Reno had no chance of blending into the surroundings, so the two found a good perch on a building roof some blocks away and watched through their own binoculars. One man played at working on the engine of an old landcruiser at the side of the road while another sat in a plastic chair and jabbered to him. Reno guessed the one in the seat had a sub-machine gun in easy reach among the scattered tools and containers while the other probably had an AKM under that hood.
The guy sitting on the second story of the construction site – a skeletal, unfinished structure of metal poles and some poured concrete – pretended to eat his lunch all day long without actually eating anything. Any movement approaching from the main, paved road brought the binoculars to his eyes. The angle prevented getting a good look at the prone man on the roof, but he was likely the sniper with a longarm close by.
The man running the corner bodega that sold sundries and water had too much beef to be an actual merchant. He interacted stiffly whenever anyone bought anything from him, and his customers revealed no comfort or community. They did not know him and he didn’t know them. His eyes went to the construction site often.
The sun had almost touched the horizon when Deng and Reno returned to the Prada. Weapons remained in easy reach.
Deng took out his Browning and checked its magazine yet again. “I cannot believe this is a coincidence.”
“Alor could have killed us at the meeting if that’s what he wanted,” Reno said. “It’s not a hit. . . I don’t think.”
Deng shook his head. “But there is no one else. No one else wants my blood so bad, and no one knows I am back. They are Alor’s men.”
“There’s plenty of cover around back, and they don’t seem particularly vigilant.” Reno scratched his jaw. “Do we chance it? If they’re Alor’s men, they won’t be gunning for us until the job is done.”
“That is a bet I do not wish to take.” Deng frowned. “I have a second safehouse. A cot, a toilet, nothing more. It will work for now.” The Prada pulled into the road.
Reno pressed one hand against the roof to try to jam himself into the seat as the truck danced through the canyons of the back tracks. “Sounds lovely, but first let’s go talk to an old friend.” Reno took one of the three cell phones lying in the console between driver and passenger. “John’s in town. I told him I’d meet him for dinner.”
“You do that. I have some people I need to speak to. I need to try to get someplace clean.”
Along the river, far back from the main road on its own, private track, AFEX had both quarters and restaurants. The living quarters had been tents back in 2006, and those remained, but now it boasted both real rooms and those built from containers. Visiting businessmen, diplomats and even the occasional movie star, come to lend his considerable charm to the country’s cause, roomed at AFEX.
No one would notice two ex-pats having pizza and beer on a Wednesday night.
Like so many other restaurants in the city, the restaurant at AFEX Camp had nothing resembling local food. It had, however, local beer. John had started into a tall, cold bottle of Nile Lager, half of it in the glass he held. He stood and offered Reno his hand. Reno took it, returning John’s smile.
Tall and lanky, the American had spiky blonde hair, sparkling eyes, and a youthful enthusiasm that no European could comfortably wear. Sitting, he took a long sip of his beer. “Godammit, but this place is hot. I mean, real hot. Like humid hot. You know?”
Pleasantries. John always started with small talk – at least with people he liked. Calm and cool, he wore his composure like a suit. He looked good in it, but when the time came, he could slip it off, roll up his sleeves, and dig in. As long as he spoke in his affable, unidentifiable, almost flat English, he hadn’t started the clock. When his easy, agreeable attitude left him, he was getting ready for business.
You didn’t want to be John’s business.
“Yeah, uncomfortable weather.” Reno considered heading to the bar to get himself a drink, but then he saw the waiter approach with two tall bottles of Nile Lager. The condensation on their sides said they were cold.
Since the place didn’t have wait-staff, John must have dropped some serious money in the past. They’d remember that. Reno and John exchanged weather wisdom until the waiter departed.
John considered the beer already in his glass. “You here for a vacation?”
“Business.” The waiter had left a bottle opener, which Reno used on one of the bottles. “I felt obliged. You can imagine why.”
“Frankly, I can’t.” John’s smile lost some of its luster as he leaned on his elbow, bringing himself closer to Reno. “What the hell are you doing here? After 2006, I thought you’d be gone for good. There are plenty of people in this city that’d gut you for the change in my pocket.”
“I got called back in.”
John shook his head. “No you didn’t. No one’s got that pull. No one’s got that weight.”
Around most people, Reno could hold it all in. Nothing touched his face and nothing tinged his voice. John put him at ease. He always had. Did something reach his face? It must have, because John’s smile slowly slid away.
“Someone got to Deng.” John paused, watching Reno. “No, Deng got to you. Deng’s back?” John leaned back in his chair, his mouth hanging limp for a moment. Silence lingered. Around them, voices chattered, music insisted, the river groaned. John rubbed his face. “Tell me.”
“I need an ID. Ahmed Hussein Qassim, or maybe just Okema. Ugandan. He’s done work in Somalia. They say he’s working for you now.”
John didn’t dodge. He didn’t obfuscate. “Boltcutter.”
“Yes, Boltcutter. What’s with that name?”
“In Mogadishu, he used a Vikhr, a silenced Russian carbine designed for the Spetznatz, or the FSB.” John’s smile returned, heralded by a chuckle. “Someone thought it was the Vintorez, the silenced sniper rifle, uses the same cartridge.”
“Yeah. Someone messed up the name. Boltcutter.”
Reno released a long breath through his nose. “Go figure. Okay. So who is the Boltcutter?”
“He works for us.” John refilled his empty glass. “And?”
“Deng and I have been hired to kill him.”
To his credit, John didn’t spill a drop as he poured, though the bottle did shake for an instant. “Who?”
“Major General David Alor.”
“Oh fuck me.” John’s face tensed around his eye, showcasing ridges and wear hidden a moment before. “When?”
“Got the briefcase full of money this afternoon. We’ve got three days to get this done.”
“You’re going to do it?”
“Are you kidding me? You say he’s yours.”
John flexed his right hand and the joints cracked. A pistol in that hand would hit any target within 300 metres. Reno waited, knowing John ran through options in his head, considering, weighing, deciding. John ran a finger along the side of his glass, creating a path through the condensation. “I have an out. I can get you to Frankfurt. No questions asked and no trail left behind. I can guarantee your contract is paid and there’ll be no blowback. It’ll take a few years, but you’ll be able to come back. If you want.”
“What is he doing?” Reno asked. “He’s not a CI, he’s not placed to inform. He’s an operative. What’s the operation?”
For a few heartbeats, John just stared at Reno. In those heartbeats, his youthful, sparkling eyes went cold. John calculated. One eye tightened slightly. “Al Shabaab is moving people through the city. Some are going west to connect with other extremists in Nigeria and the Maghreb. Some are coming east after finishing training. This is the crossroads. The country’s a fucking mess. Everyone is up for grabs. Fertile ground for that kind of traffic. The connection is here.”
The realization of how it all fit left Reno unable to stop the smile from reaching his face. “Boltcutter has sniffed out the connection.”
“Seems he has.” John finished the beer in his glass. “Still, we’re not done. The op is running. I know you well enough to know you’re not going to spike it. You have your out.”
“Deng and I both.”
“It’s an out for one.” John said. “That’s how it’s been set up. It’s my goddamn out, okay? This is my escape pod, but I’ll give you the keys. I’m going to have to vacate to Nairobi tonight. I won’t be back until we get another out in place.” He considered his empty glass. “You’re welcome.”
“Give it to Deng.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “Seriously? That leaves you exposed. Really exposed. I can’t stay here without an out. You bail with me or you are totally screwed. Alor’s connected. And he holds a grudge. ”
“He’s holding one against Deng,” Reno said. “That’s what this is about. Two birds: Boltcutter and Deng both. You protect your operative. I’ll protect my friend.”
“You know what’ll happen once he drops off the map.” John clasped his hands before him on the table. “You owe him that much?”
“Do you remember Morocco?”
“Of course.” Barely a muscle twitched on John’s face, but his tone said that no one could forget that kind of debt.
“It’s like that.”
John’s lips pursed, then they flowed into a kind of sad grin. “You get him to agree, you’ve got my number. Call me. Give me a go or no go.” He rose.
Reno stood and held out his hand. “Slate’s clean.”
John’s grip had lost none of its gentle strength. “The slate will never be clean.”
Deng picked up Reno at the main road, making a wide turn to change directions. Deng didn’t drive the Prada. He had a white Toyota Landcruiser, and it looked rough. The dash had bubbled, kind of melted. Reno had seen it before working in the Sahel and along the Sahara. You leave a vehicle in the sun and that black dash will get hot, hot enough to melt.
Reno slid into his seat. “We’re right fucked.”
“That is obvious.” Deng gestured to the glove compartment. “At least we have somewhat secure comms.”
In the glove compartment, Reno found two Iridium satellite phones, and a wad of money.
“That is the good news.” Deng’s eyes did not leave the road, which lacked any illumination beyond the landcruiser’s headlights. “The bad news is that we are flying solo. I have no one left in the city I can trust. I need to get back into the safehouse to get the money and equipment.”
“No you don’t.” Reno also watched the road, it being so much easier to speak when not facing with the other. “John has an out. It’s yours.”
“I leave now and I don’t come back.” Nothing reached Deng’s voice. They might have been discussing the best route to get to a good Ethiopian restaurant. “Alor is it. He is the last of them. He goes or I do, and I will never be able to return.”
“Then we talk to this Boltcutter.” Reno picked one of the sat phones. “I’ll let John know we’re staying put. He’ll get us a meet. We’ll figure this out.”
“Boltcutter is theirs?” Deng’s tone said that he didn’t need an answer.
Reno gave him one. “He is. And Alor is into some nasty shit. Not that that’s a surprise. You said it’s either you or Alor. I know which one I pick.”
“Then make your call, but we need to pass a message on also,” Deng said. “Not by phone. Some other way.”
Reno didn’t ask. He keyed the number, confident John wouldn’t say no, even if that’s what he wanted.
You can find part one of “The Boltcutter” here.
Look for more Friday Fiction here.