“Tell me again why I’m sitting on a plane flying to some bug infested country, to find some woman I’ve never met? And why in hell’s name I’m doing it for free?” Leo asked half joking, half serious.
Kayden watched Leo and his heart warmed with past thoughts. Leo McNulty, a Boston Irish street punk, had grown into a top-notch soldier with the Marine Corps Special Forces, then was discharged for insubordination. No surprise there. Now, he worked as a construction worker by day and barroom junkie by night, with a bad gambling habit. He owed Kayden his life on more than one account, but Kayden owed him more than that.
Kayden rested his head back, closed his eyes, and sighed. “Because if I left you in Boston, you’d be dead by the time I got back.”
“Yeah. Hey, man, I can’t thank you enough for bailing me out back there,” Leo said. “Those Irish Mob fucks don’t cut any slack when pay day comes. That horse was a shoo-in. How the fuck was I to know it would break its fucking leg? Didn’t matter to them boys, though. If it wasn’t for you…”
Kayden glanced at Leo. “I owe you, man. I’ll owe you for the rest of my life.”
Leo waved him off. “You don’t owe me shit. Forget it, bro. You would have done the same for me. If anyone owes anyone anything, I owe you. Big time.”
Leo was right, Kayden would have done the same for him. But it didn’t go down that way. It was Leo who orchestrated the hit on Giovanni and his men after they shot Kayden’s wife and son during a hit on the Irish mob leader, Scully O’Shea.
The stewardess passed by and bumped Kayden’s arm, forcing his thoughts to the present. He looked over at Leo. “You do this with me and I’ll consider your debt paid in full.” He held out his hand. “Agreed?” Leo didn’t answer. “Agreed?” Kayden repeated. Leo stared at the plastic cup of Scotch in his hand. Kayden knew he was having an argument with his pride. As usual, his pride was winning. “Come on, man. It’s not a big deal.”
“Maybe to you it’s not.” Leo downed the rest of his drink and set it on the plastic pull-down tray in front of him. “Have you even kept track of the money I owe you? I don’t know why you keep bailing my Paddie ass out of shit. Anyway, I’m on this fucking bird, right? Yeah, agreed,” he said, and shook his hand.
“Good. Now shut up and let me get some z’s.”
“Did I mention I don’t much care for bugs?” Leo asked.
“Yes. ‘Ya know, for a combat adrenaline junkie, I’d never figure you to have such a problem with some little bugs.”
“Did I mention I don’t much care for lions and tigers and bears, either?”
“You’re in luck. There aren’t any tigers or bears in Africa.”
The pilot opened the door. Leo was the first out. “This place sucks already. Can you smell that? What the hell is it? Animal shit?” Leo wiped away his sweat with a bandana, then tied it around his neck.” And what fucking plane doesn’t have air conditioning?”
They stepped off the small, eighteen passenger plane early in the morning and walked to the back to collect their bags.
“Now, that’s a long freaking flight. A day and a half,” Leo said.
Thick, dusty air stuck to the roof of their mouths. “It’s not that bad. Just another adventure.” Kayden smiled and reached for his bags. Leo said something to the security guard who motioned toward the long, narrow building. It didn’t look any more than twenty car lengths long, and two car lengths wide. A three story, square, air traffic control tower rose from the middle of it.
Leo slung his bag over his shoulder. “He says that’s the airport.” Laughing, he led the way.
“You don’t say. And who says men don’t ask for directions?” Kayden said.
It took nearly two hours to get through customs. Not bad, since some of Kayden’s trips had taken up to seven or more. The hired driver, Riley, met them out front and drove them to The Store in downtown Gaborone, where they shopped for supplies.
Leo snickered. “The Store. How long you think it took them to think that name up?”
Parts of the roads had washed out from the heavy rains, forcing them to make several detours. They didn’t reach Maun until five-thirty p.m. as the sun set over the sparse plains, coloring the sky a deep, burnt orange.
“Do not worry!” Riley said enthusiastically to Leo. “Your friend tells me it is your pleasure to see lions. Night travel is the best time to see them most active.” He gazed at Leo in the rearview mirror and smiled.
Leo punched Kayden in the arm, but Kayden refused to look at him.
“Oh, he did, did he? Well, I think he was mistaken. It is not my ‘pleasure’ to see lions. In fact, I can bloody well do without seeing even one.” Leo slapped Riley on the back, smiled broadly and said, “But I am starving, any suggestions?”
“Food can wait for now,” Kayden said. “I’d like to get to our camp as soon as possible. There are things to get organized before we head out in the morning to find Danielle. I want an early start.”
“Whatever,” Leo grumbled.
Riley focused on the rutted road ahead. “Yes, yes, of course. The plane is just another thirty minutes away. We will be there soon.”
They arrived in the town of Sanyedi Ward.
“This is where I will leave you,” Riley said. “Safe journeys, my friends.”
“Thanks for your help. Safe journey to you as well,” Kayden said.
The plane took them to a landing site where they met a short, black man. Kayden placed him somewhere in his sixties. Dressed in khaki pants, a blue, checkered cotton shirt, and a pale green baseball cap, He approached with a wide grin, removed his hat, and nodded. His language was thick with a flare of British accent. “Good day to you. It is my pleasure, gentlemen. I am your guide, Obie. Please, come. We have a long journey.”
The dusty roads full of deep ruts made the drive long and hard. They passed a native woman wrapped in a colorful, long, cotton dress carrying a wooden bowl on her head. She flashed a bright smile and waved as they drove by. Obie beeped and waved in return. A short while later, they passed a mini-van parked along the side of the road. Kayden smiled as he read the handwritten sign painted in blue, ‘Mobile Medical Hospital’. Leo didn’t comment, but Kayden knew he must have seen it. They arrived at their camp an hour and a half later.
The campsite consisted of three canvas tents erected on raised wooden platforms about a foot off the ground. There was a decent sized fire pit with some makeshift wooden seats surrounding it.
“Well, it’s a camp,” said Leo.
Both men looked around warily.
“Man, if your girl’s at a campsite like this, I don’t see how we’re ever going to find her,” Leo said.
“We will,” said Kayden. “We have to. And she’s not my girl. She’s a thief who stole my money and my car.”
“I can’t believe she had the balls to steal your car, man,” Leo said and laughed.
The field guide made a pot of coffee. He crouched by the fire, poking at what looked like some sort of meat on a stick. Closer inspection showed it to be several small pieces of animal on skewers and a pot of what appeared to be…beans? Nothing smelled familiar.
“Try this,” Obie said holding up a leg he ripped from one of the skewers. “I’ll bet you never had anything like it.” He laughed and shoved it in Leo’s direction.
Kayden and Leo exchanged a glance. Leo leaned in toward Kayden and said cautiously, “Don’t even think about eating that shit.” He looked at the skewer Obie held out to him. “Uh, no thanks, friend. I ate a bit too much on the way here. Stomach’s a little queasy.” Leo leaned back in order to avoid any sort of contact with the unknown source. “But Kayden here’ll give it a go.” He smiled at Kayden and gave him a slap on the back.
“Yeah, well, no. That’s okay. Not sure the stomach is feeling so good. Better not upset it any more than necessary.”
Kayden smiled at Obie, then turned and gave Leo a sarcastic look, which only made Leo laugh even more.
“No problem, there will be plenty left for breakfast,” Obie said in his thick African accent, then turned his attentions back to the fire. He sang a native tune, low and soft, as he continued to stir the beans.
“Breakfast? He’s got to be kidding. I’m not eating that shit for breakfast. What the hell is it anyway, rat? Probably crawling with bugs. There must be a decent place to get something to eat.” Leo swatted at something buzzing around his ears. “See what I mean?”
“Um, have you taken a close look around at where we are? We’re off the beaten track, old friend, out in the boondocks of the Kalahari desert with not even a toilet in sight. Do you seriously believe we’ll find a local restaurant nearby?”
Leo slapped himself in the head and gazed at Kayden with maddening eyes. Kayden laughed a hearty laugh and shook his head. “Man, I knew you had a thing with bugs, but I didn’t know how bad,” Kayden said.
“What do you mean? It’s not that bad.”
“Oh, really. I just saw you beat the shit out of yourself while you jumped around doing a Swahili dance because of a little fly.”
“It wasn’t little. You could put a saddle on that thing. And I think it bit me. And it ain’t the flies I’m worried about. Ever hear of Malaria? It’s the goddamned mosquitos I’m worried about.”
“Whatever, you’re still gonna need to eat,” Kayden said.
“I don’t care. Did you see the bugs crawling on it? I’m not eatin’ it. You eat it. And just for the record, you’ll probably be spending most of your time here in what they call a hospital. Did you happen to notice? It was the minivan we passed about fifty miles back on the side of the road with a sign taped to the side that read, ‘Mobile Medical Hospital’. You’ll be in good hands there, mate.”
“All right, all right. We’ll find normal food somewhere in the morning. Better get some shuteye if we want to get an early start. Relax, Leo, I’m sure Obie knows what he’s doing. He’ll keep you safe and won’t let the bedbugs bite.” Kayden laughed and went to his tent. He glanced back to see Obie watching Leo spray half a can of bug spray over his body.
Obie chuckled. “You even may encounter lions next to your tent, or an elephant or two. As long as you stay in your tent, they are no harm. Just make sure your tent is closed all the time so you don’t let them insects or snakes into your bed.” He smiled, and waved goodnight.
“That’s just too fucking great,” Leo mumbled. He smiled back at Obie. Giving a half wave, half salute he said, “Thanks for that, mate. Good to know. I’m not worried, though, ya know. Been in worst dangers than this for sure.” He smiled a fake, sarcastic smile and went inside.
Kayden laughed and entered his tent.
What the… Kayden opened his eyes and thought for sure he could smell…what…yes it was…eggs! The beautiful smell of eggs cooking. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. He climbed out of his sleeping bag and stuck his head through the flap of his tent.
“Obie, my man, what’s that you’re doin’ there?” His voice held the excitement of a starving man.
“Good morning. I cooked you up some eggs and biscuits. Also heated up some of that Impala I made last night.” Obie smiled pleasantly.
“Impala? ” Kayden asked.
“Yep, antelope to be more accurate. We refer to them here as the McDonalds of the bush. You find them on most every menu in some way.” He lifted a piece and held it out to him.
Kayden took it apprehensively, turned it over a couple of times, smelled it, and then took a bite. “Ah, my friend, fantastic. Better than venison,” he said, pleasantly surprised.
Obie handed him a cup of coffee and a full plate of food. Leo was already sitting by the fire pit devouring his share.
“And you thought you wouldn’t find decent food out here in the bush,” Kayden said to Leo.
“Yeah, well, you remember Iraq. Nothing good about that place, food or otherwise. You’d rather starve to death than eat anything prepared there, even if they played it off as American. Thank God for C-rations.”
“Yeah, but it was a pretty good war tactic. Let your enemy kill himself by starvation. Save your ammo and manpower.” Chuckling, they finished their breakfast.
They left the camp around seven a.m. Obie’s old military jeep creaked and rattled, but to Kayden’s trained ear for engines, it sounded good. They drove east on Sir Seretse Khama Road and continued to drive for the good part of the day. They stopped at each town they came upon to ask about Danielle Montgomery, but each proved to be a dead end. They headed back to their camp late that evening, tired and aggravated. The drive was long and exhausting.
“Hey, man,” Leo said. “We’ve been doing this rock and roll shit long enough. We gonna hit a normal road anytime soon? I mean, not that I want to complain or anything, but you get me, right L.T.?”
Kayden glanced back at Leo. “Yeah, I get you. And don’t call me L.T. I’m not a lieutenant, anymore. What do you think, Obie, almost there or what?” Kayden glanced at Obie and winked.
“Oh, yes, my friends. We are almost there. I’d say about another three or four miles. That is all.”
Kayden peered over his shoulder and smiled at Leo. “See, we’re almost there. Sit back and relax.”
Just as Leo sat back, the jeep began to sputter. “So what’s this shit?” he asked.
“No worries, friend. This old clunker has the heart of a lion. It won’t leave us stranded here,” Obie said.
“Has anyone noticed we’re out in nowhere land inside an open sided, rusted out jeep, completely exposed?” Leo said, swatting at something unseen by the others.
“Yeah, Obie, we’re too far from camp to walk back at this hour. The brush is so damned high you can’t see shit all around you. I’m a little nervous that no one would ever find us here.” Kayden added.
“I dunno, mate. Seems we may be running out of gasoline,” Obie said looking very concerned. “I thought I checked before we left.”
“No, no, no. Wait. You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Leo said. His voice rose, and his breathing became shallow.
Kayden sat in the passenger seat watching Leo’s silhouette in the visor mirror. The jeep lurched forward a few more feet, then died. Obie glanced over at Kayden, then in his rearview at Leo.
“Uh, I’m not sure this is a good thing.”
Without the engine running, and without lights, the bush closed in around them, dark and alive with the beasts of the night. They were sitting ducks in the open sided jeep. Obie tried to start the vehicle several times with no luck.
“Leo, perhaps you can reach in back and pull out the flashlights. There should be two,” Obie said.
“I guess it’s just one of those days.” Kayden spoke calmly, still looking straight ahead. “But I think we’d better think of something here soon since there seems to be some sort of animal in our zone.”
They sat very still and listened to something moving in the distance on Leo’s side. He slid across the seat, as if it would make that much of a difference, and shined the flashlight into the tall grass. Then he heard something on the other side. None of them moved. Softly they heard the far off, very low rumble of a lion. Within what seemed like seconds, they heard the sound loud and clear on the far side of the vehicle.
“Turn off the light, Leo,” Obie said. “They’re calling to each other. It’s quite a beautiful sound, no?” Obie said with a smile.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Leo half yelled, half whispered. The panic was apparent. “Dammit, L.T., I told you we needed some sort of weapon around here.”
“Oh, yes, I have a rifle in the back as well. Lift the canvas and you will see,” Obie said.
Leo nearly jumped over the seat and scrambled to lift the canvas. “Bingo!” He grabbed the rifle and checked it for ammo. “Uh, it’s empty. What the hell you driving around with an empty rifle for? Oh, this is just great. Really? They’re just gonna find our remains scattered all over and figure we’re just another bunch of dumbass tourists.”
“Calm down, Leo. This isn’t as bad as it seems.” Kayden was still calm when he looked over at Obie. “All right, enough fun, better get going before Killer Joe here gets so freaked out he jumps to his death.”
Obie slapped Kayden on the arm and laughed loudly. Peering in the mirror with a huge grin, he turned the key and started the jeep.
Leo just sat there for a few moments.
“You no-good-sons-of-bitches. Both of you. Think that’s fuckin’ funny, do ya? Just remember, friends, payback’s a bitch.” Embarrassment in his voice.
“All in fun, Leo. Besides, I owed you for that little stunt you pulled with those girls at the club,” Kayden said with a hearty laugh.
“What girls at what club?”
“Back in Philly.”
“You’ve got to be kidding! That was over a year ago, and those really were girls. Yours was just uglier than mine.”
“You know, I’d like to clock you one right now, but instead I’m gonna think of a good one in return. Yeah, this payback is gonna be sweet. You can count on it,” Leo said, smiling with a dreamy look in his eyes.
Kayden knew that look all too well. He was in for a good one, indeed.