The Hora River was one of this world’s true hellholes, low lying, malarial, in places so densely forested that the early white explorers had given up trying to track its course. It ran easterly into Zambia to join the Zambezi and totally gave a lie to what had been the colonial name for Mazengwe, British Highland Africa.
Piet van der Byl had been down in the valley for three days, talking to local people, getting out into the bush, watching and listening. What he was hearing and seeing was not encouraging, the overthrow of Kimba and his thugs may have halted for a few weeks the traffic in illegal diamonds, but others had soon stepped into the void, and once again the traffic in the little shiny stones was up and running.
Piet’s Intel was that criminal gangs run by survivors of Kimba’s intelligence services had seized control of Mingwe and its diamond fields, using all the old methods of kidnapping slave labourers from the nearby tribal areas, and controlling them with all the old brutality.
The Hora Valley just as before was the route of choice for smuggling the stones out of the country and into the hands of buyers who didn’t care that these stones had been gathered at such a price in both death and human suffering.
Before slipping into Mazengwe, Piet had spent a week in Lusaka, talking to friends and local contacts. Local police and Army leaders may have been embarrassed by news of what had been happening in Mazengwe before, and as always there were good, responsible people who genuinely believed in the mission to stop the flow of diamonds and starve the bad guys of their profits. Too many, though, of the people who might have been effectively able to do something though were being paid off, persuaded by other means to turn a blind eye, or just plain old fashioned killed or intimidated.
Piet’s fluency in the local Awahli language, as well as his knowledge of Shati, the language of the tribe who called the valley home was proving useful. He’d sat in a beer hall in a village called Beki, and just listened. From what he could hear a group of couriers from Mingwe were expected in the next two days along with their armed guard. The local police commander had been celebrating with his constables their good fortune at being paid to head over to the other side of the river for a few days. Piet guessed that the army locally would also be finding something else to distract it as well.
As Piet tried to sleep in what passed for a hotel in Beki, he tried to map out his plans. He was sure that up and down the valley the presence of a white stranger was by now common knowledge. Given his own physical size Piet had little chance of hiding in plain sight. He wanted to follow the diamond couriers though and gather the evidence of their activities, both to publish in his newspaper, but maybe also to pass on to Charlotte Gordon, his ex girlfriend, she with the mysterious and murky associates.
Charlotte – she was almost the exact opposite to him, petite, slight, to most eyes weak. But when they had been going out, he had seen the inner steel she possessed – and the fight against Kimba had shown she was not the simple IT consultant she pretended to be. She was part of something much bigger, but every time he probed she laughed and joked of being an international jewel thief and spy. Whatever she was now, she wanted it kept private, and he respected that.
But her laugh – he had forgotten how it warmed him, and when they had met in New York a tiny spark had flared up again. She had returned to London, however, and as for him…
Going covert was his obvious course of action, getting close to the couriers without them realizing he was there, trailing them, identifying the buyers in Zambia and then getting himself out safely.
Here at Beki he was pretty sure he’d be able to both identify the couriers as they came through, and from here follow them as they left Mazengwe and headed into Zambia.
Others would maybe try and plant electronic surveillance, but Piet still believed that the best intelligence-gathering tool was still the human eye. In his old beat-up Ford truck he would follow at what he hoped was a discreet distance the couriers and their guard, hoping that they were cocky enough in having done this enough times that just maybe their security measures were not just what they should be.
He’d slipped the hotel owner $50 US to be woken should any strangers coming from the west arrive in the village, and promised him another hundred when he’d confirmed the fact. That amount of money should ensure him the good information and pay for the owners’ silence.
As he turned over and tired to relax, Piet was secure in his own mind that he was doing the right thing.
In London Charlotte sat at her computer screen. Thanks to Heather’s magic boxes she was getting a readout of just where Piet’s cell phone was. That was in Eastern Mazengwe, hundreds of miles from where he had lied to her he was going, and deep in crap.
That he had lied to her didn’t worry her, she knew that he put a story above everything, it was one of the reasons that they’d broken up. What did worry her though was his recklessness at entering an area known to be so highly dangerous without either a backup, or she was sure a viable extraction plan should he get in trouble.
At least she had a helicopter on the ground 25 minutes flight away from Piet; placed there if Charlotte thought it obvious Piet was in above his neck so she could get him out hopefully. In the meantime though, thank the Goddess for GPS that allowed her to pinpoint his location so accurately.
And for some additional help from an unexpected source…
Piet’s eyes snapped open as he felt the slight breeze on his face. One of the basic things he always did was sleep with the window shut, and he knew it wasn’t closed any more.
He slowly reached his hand over for the light switch, only to freeze as he felt the gun pressed against his head and heard someone say “he’s awake.”
“Good,” a second voice said, “it means we can force him to tell us where the money is.” Both were speaking in Awahli, but Piet knew enough not to reveal he understood them. Instead, he said in English “Who are you? What are you doing in my room?”
“Just shut up, and do what we tell you,” the second voice said in English, and as the light in the room went on he saw one of the men who had been in the bar earlier, holding a large and very real machete in his hand. Sitting up, he saw a second man, much younger, holding an old Magnum .45 against him.
“Look, I don’t want no trouble,” Piet said as he raised his hands, “just tell me what you want and you can have it.”
“Rich white man, waving his money about and thinking he can get his own way,” the younger man said, “paying people to keep him informed.”
“All right,” Piet thought to himself, “so it’s my good, good friend the hotel manager.”
“So its money you want,” he said out loud, “you can have it – let me…”
“Don’t move,” the man with the machete said as he looked at Piet. “Where is it?”
“Top drawer, under the socks,” Piet said as he looked at the bureau.
“Good,” the older man said as he drew some cords from his pocket and threw them over to the bed, “tie him up.”
“There is no need for…”
“Shut the fuck up and lie face down,” the young man said as he waved the gun at Piet.
“All right, all right…” He slowly turned and lay down, wondering if this was the end. After all, would they keep him alive? And if not – like this? Not the way he had imagined…
It was at this point that the lights went out.
“Hey – who th…”
Piet heard a gurgling sound, and then heard a heavy clank as the machete fell to the floor. He heard the younger man say “Who’s there,” and then the pressure on his arms suddenly end as if his assailant had been pulled away.
Turning over, he saw the younger man staring at him in the gloom, as someone behind him held him with their hand over his mouth, and then let him drop to the floor. Looking to the other side, he saw a second shadowy figure standing looking at him, before they both seemed to fade into the night.
Jumping out of bed, Piet checked the two men. The younger one had a damp patch at his back, and as the lights came back on Piet could see the red stain on his shirt where a knife had been driven in.
As for the other potential robber, he was lying on the floor, his eyes bulging and a wire wrapped tightly round his throat, almost embedded into the skin.
“What the hell happened here…” Piet said to himself before there was a knock on the door.
“Mister? Mister, are you awake?”
Opening the door, Piet literally pulled the hotel manager off his feet and into the room, holding him against the wall as he looked at the two bodies.
“Friends of yours,” he growled, the manager too scared to do much other than stammer “Nnnnnn no I have never seen them before.”
“What did you want?”
“Strangers – downstairs, in the lobby. White men, big, speak with a strange accent.”
“This,” Piet snarled, “is your problem. Go, before I decide if I will do the same to you – and if you say anything, I will.”
The manager nodded and ran out, whimpering as Piet grabbed his clothes. He’d try and figure this one out later – right now, he needed to get to his car.
As he walked quietly through the lobby, he caught a glimpse of the four men – big, not as tall as him but still strong, trying to look casual and failing as people like them so often did. Their blonde hair didn’t exactly make them inconspicuous either, but somehow he knew they didn’t care about that.
As he slipped into the street, he dropped his rucksack beside him in the front of his truck. A few minutes later, he saw a jeep pull up and two men get out – men he knew were former associates of Kimba.
“Showtime,” he said to himself as they returned with the four strangers, one of them getting into the jeep as the others got into an old Cortina. He held back, glad he did as they set off and a third vehicle followed them, before he himself set off down the road after the convoy.
The sun was still to come up, but he dare not put on his headlights, relying instead on his eyesight and the sound of the trucks, as well as their lights, to illuminate the way. They made their way out of the town and into the valley, heading down dirt tracks until they came to a halt near one of the old diamond mines.
Piet himself parked a few hundred yards back, watching as the men got out and headed down the path, and then slowly turning the vehicle and parking it in the trees, out of sight of the track. Grabbing his bag, he left the vehicle behind and went forward on foot – not noticing the shadows that moved in his truck.
Keeping to the trees, Piet made his way along the path until he came to a small tented village. The sun was starting to rise above the horizon, but he could see the men from the jeep and one of the Europeans standing outside a tent, the front of which was open. As he moved himself to look inside, he saw a number of Mazengwean officials talking to the other three foreigners.
“Say cheese for the camera,” Piet whispered to himself as he took out his camera, and used the night lens to take some pictures of the group. In the quiet, he could hear snatches of conversation in the local language – and one other.
“Godammit, is that Russian,” he thought as he continued to take the pictures, and then watched as the couriers came out, carrying a black case with them.
“Right, back to the jeep,” Piet thought to himself, before he put his camera away and turned round – to face a large guard behind him, the machete raised in readiness to strike.
“Fuck,” was the only thought on his mind, before he saw the red stain grow on the man’s chest, and then watched him fall to the side. Behind him was the shadowy figure from before – a little easier to see in the dawn light. They were only about five foot six tall, dressed in black with a covering over their face – and it was clear now it was a woman.
No – two women, as a second appeared and beckoned to Piet. He followed them as they led him back down the path, the second woman holding a bow and occasionally firing arrows into the trees. He could hear the thumps behind him, but did not have time to think or even look round as they took him to his truck.
“Drive,” one of them said in Awahli, “we will protect you.”
Nodding, Piet waited for the convoy to come back, and then followed them from a distance, the two women crouching in the back of his truck.
As they approached the border, the jeep and the third vehicle peeled off, and the car with the couriers drove straight ahead. Piet caught a glimpse of two figures in black jumping from his truck, as he followed them into Zambia.
Later that afternoon, Piet was sitting in a hotel lobby in Lusaka, watching the four men as they sat round a table. He had had a chance to shower and change, so that he looked less conspicuous, but he hadn’t been able to rest – too many questions about the last twenty four hours were running through his mind.
Sipping his drink, he watched as two more men approached the table, one of which made him stop and think.
“I know that face,” he thought to himself, “that’s Mueller – he works for one of the Russian families. Makes sense, though.” He slipped his cell phone out and pretended to be checking messages, instead filming the conversation between the group, Mueller and the other new arrival.
“Well now, this gets more and more interesting,” he muttered to himself as he filmed the suitcase changing hands for another one, and then Mueller leaving with the second man. Smiling, he left some money on the table and stood up, walking to the hotel lobby.
“Mister van der Byl?”
Piet stopped and looked at the man standing next to him. He wore an open necked shirt and khaki trousers with a matching jacket, but he could see the gun in the holster underneath.
“Mister Mueller’s compliments to you, Mister van der Byl, and he asks if you would accompany me?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“No,” the man said as he took his arm, “this way please. Mister Mueller does not like it when investigative reporters are following him.”
“Why? Does he have something to hide?”
“Please, let’s not make a scene in here,” he said as he took Piet through a back door, and into the alleyway behind the hotel.
“Nothing personal,” the man then said as he drew the gun out. “An attempted burglary gone wrong.”
“Great – how passé,” Piet said as he closed his eyes, and heard the soft phut. Opening his eyes, he looked at the man, who slowly fell to the ground. Behind him was a tall African woman, who put a silenced pistol into her large handbag and said “Follow me, Mister van der Byl, if you wish to file your story.”
“We have a helicopter waiting – come. Quickly. Police will be here soon.”
Piet walked quickly over to her, getting into a waiting car as it drove off.
“What about my stuff?”
“It will be forwarded to you,” the woman said as the cab sped through the streets.
“Who are you?”
“A friend,” was all she said as they turned into a derelict site, where a helicopter was waiting. “File your story, Mister van der Byl – it needs to be told.”
“Get in,” was all she said as she pushed him towards the helicopter, waiting until he got in and it ascended before she drove off.
“Got a call for you,” the pilot said as he flew over the city. Piet nodded as he said “hello?”
“Jy is 'n volledige idioot, weet jy dit?”
“Charlotte? What the hell is going on here?”
“I’m watching your back is what’s going on. Sit back, enjoy the ride – we’ll talk later.”
“You have some explaining to do, young lady. What are the Russians doing in all this?”
“We’ll talk later,” was all he heard Charlotte say as the line went dead.
“We got him out, Madame,” Charlotte said as she sat in Shirley’s office. “He has proof it is the Russians buying – and he identified one of Boronov’s men. Mueller.”
“Have you informed Dominique?”
“Before I came in here. We’ll talk when she gets back.”
“Good – when will he be in London?”
“Next week – I’ll have something ready by then to tell him how I knew.”
“Very well – pass on my thanks as well.”
“Madame,” Charlotte said as she stood up and left the office. When he came, she’d tell him she was contacted by someone in Mazengwe who got him out. Who they were – that was a secret she shared with only a select few.
They had heard the story from the first to return - the two who helped end the tyranny, and freed their daughters, their sisters, their family.
They knew they could never return, but they take their inspiration from them, and they have come together to watch and help those who would free them from further tyrants. They walk amongst the people, unseen, unnoticed, but they watch, they wait, and they help where they can.
They honour The Heart and The Strength, and work for them and with others.
They are the Sisters of Maisha.
But she preferred to call them Charlotte’s Angels.