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West eyed the dry, cracked dirt outside the car warily. The temperature outside the air-conditioning was nearing forty degrees Celsius and predicted to rise, and she didn’t handle heat well.
‘We going in or what?’ Chris said as he put his hand on the keys to turn off the Jeep. West’s hand shot out involuntarily and stopped him. The car was old – a beat-up 2016 model – but the AC still worked perfectly.
‘Just a minute,’ she said, closing her eyes.
‘You and the weather have a messed up relationship.’ Chris pulled his hand away from the keys, content to let her relax.
Gregory piped up from the back. ‘Maybe you’re going through early menopause.’ West waited a beat, letting an uncomfortable silence build before responding.
Shelley beat her to the punch, slapping Greg on the back of the head. ‘Idiot.’ It was the most the big guy said all day.
‘Let’s roll.’ She opened her door and forced herself out. The air hit her harder than any punch she’d ever taken; her throat dried up in a second and every inch of skin began sweating immediately. ‘Fuck me. Who the hell would live here?’ She started toward the Church of the Martyrs without waiting for her men, eager to get to the shade of the forest.
‘You picked it, captain,’ Chris said, laughing. Greg and Shelley were chuckling too and she knew how ridiculous she looked speed-walking to shade that wasn’t going to be much cooler.
‘Fuck off,’ she said. ‘And I’m not your captain.’ The shade was a disappointment, as expected, but it got her out of the sun at least. She waited impatiently for the guys to join her. They took their time, enjoying her discomfort a little too much.
They were in Darnleyville, a spec of dirt on the map they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, but there was a job waiting in the church. A small town with three old colonial buildings and a church making up the town centre, with shacks bulking it up otherwise. Impulgani – the country they’d landed in after the shit hit the fan – was big on shacks. Most of Africa these days was big on shacks.
They were drawing attention, making too much noise for a group of people who were mostly white and probably dressed better than the mayor. She took a deep breath, ready to shout at them to hurry up, but thought better of it. It’s just the heat, she thought.
‘So tell me where I went wrong,’ Greg said. He was the only one of them who might have been able to fit in, had he not been so attractive. His parents were from Ghana and he even spoke a little of the local language.
‘You insulted the captain,’ Chris replied. ‘You implied there’s something wrong with her.’
‘I imply there’s something wrong with you all the time.’ Greg stopped walking and after a few steps so did Chris. Shelley ignored them as he ignored most things. ‘The thing that has your delicate sensibilities in a twist is, she’s a woman.’
‘No, it’s that it was a messed up thing to say.’
‘Because she’s a woman.’
‘Because you don’t insult people in that way.’
‘You’re always talking about treating everyone equal. How everyone is the same, really, deep down inside. If I mentioned your crippling inability to talk to women, and how it’s a sign of your mommy issues, you’d let it slide.’
‘I’d break your nose, actually.’ Chris wiped sweat from his brow. ‘That’s different though.’
‘What’s different is that your wannabe hippy creed is bullshit. You expect us to believe everyone is equal, but treat some people special.’ He grinned, as though he’d scored a decisive victory. ‘But people are different and you’re full of shit.’ He continued walking.
‘You’re going to pretend this is a social thing? An equal rights thing? For fuck’s sake.’ He hurried to catch up, kicking up dust from the dirt road. ‘You’re meant to treat everyone with respect, you ridiculous tool.’
‘That wasn’t very respectful. I’m hurt.’
‘You’re an ass.’
They finally caught up and West turned toward the church, hoping the old building might be cooler.
‘Something you’re forgetting,’ Greg continued. He shut up when West turned round and stepped between them.
‘Enough, both of you. Chris, you don’t say shit like that to a woman, especially one with a gun. Greg, stop defending me, or I’ll come over all hysterical and hurt you.’ She waited for one of them to say something. When they kept their mouths shut she turned back to the church and walked quickly up the steps.
‘Sorry captain,’ they said in unison. She kept walking but they saw the brief pause and laughed. She’d settle with them later.
The call had come through the usual channels, a local boy knocking on the door of their shitty apartment and letting them know someone wanted to hire some muscle. They were meant to be in hiding, keeping a low profile and staying out of trouble, but they had to eat and they only had one set of skills. They were good at what they did though, and news got around. If you needed violence done to someone, or needed protection from the violence of someone else, and you had some money, they were your best bet.
Impulgani was not a large country. For all the warlords and factions that had sprung up after the last war, the country wasn’t much bigger than Wales. Sandwiched between Ghana and Burkina Faso, the landlocked country had a lot of problems only a gun seemed capable of fixing. Luckily, West and the guys had plenty of guns.
While the outside of the church appeared run down and neglected, the inside had been taken care of. The pews were varnished and clean, the stone floor swept and maintained. It couldn’t get away with stained glass windows and they’d bricked them up, but used active paint on the inside to give the appearance of having them. Fake sunlight shone from the paint, giving the interior a pleasant glow.
The heat had somehow been defeated by the church, and West briefly considered thanking God.
A busy white woman hurried down the aisle toward them. She wore enough of the local handmade jewellery to jingle as she walked. ‘You’re Captain West?’
‘I’m so glad you’re here,’ she said, shaking West’s hand for a little too long. ‘I’m Reverend Mary. Thank you for coming.’
‘You need something?’ West said. The abruptness of the question caught the woman off guard and she frowned for a moment. Then the smile returned and she was waving them toward the back of the building.
‘I think we should speak in private.’
‘Seems pretty private to me,’ Chris said.
‘People are welcome to enter whenever they want,’ she replied. ‘I don’t think this conversation is for general consumption.’
‘Fair enough,’ West said and followed her. The guys fell in behind her and they left the delightfully cool interior of the church and entered one of the side buildings and on into an office. Luckily someone had thought to include air-conditioning when they built the place, and while everyone else found their seats for the negotiation, West stood over the AC and let the sweat freeze for a moment.
‘Give her a second,’ Chris said. ‘She’s having a disagreement with the sun.’
‘It is a little warm.’ Mary opened a cupboard and revealed a bar fridge. She grabbed cans of sugary drinks for everyone. ‘This should help.’
‘You’re a saint,’ West said, abandoning the AC and grabbing the can. The hiss of escaping carbon lightened her mood immeasurably. ‘Now, what can we help you with?’
The chair squeaked as Mary took her place behind the desk. The office was barely big enough for the group; West took the chair opposite their new client while Shelley and Greg tried to sit comfortably on a small leather couch. Chris stood behind West like a bodyguard.
‘This church has been here since the country was called the Rothwell Republic. We’ve been a stable part of the local community for more than a hundred years.’
‘And something is threatening that?’ Chris said.
‘A local gang. Practically a militia.’ She was ready to cry, West saw, which would make things take longer than they needed to.
‘And?’ she said quickly, before Chris could try and comfort her, or get her to open up, or something.
‘Their leader is a guy called Abi. He’s been threatening us since he arrived, and last week he and his goons started terrorising us. They came in and started drinking and fighting in the church. They were grabbing the staff and threatening to… do things to them. To me.’
She started to cry and West could feel Chris moving into comfort mode. She spoke before he could. ‘You said he recently arrived. Where from?’
‘Somewhere up north. His father runs guns for the government and I think Abi is here to expand the business.’
‘Why pick a fight with you?’ West said. There was something here that didn’t work. Mary was too perfect as the victim, too practiced. Or West had become too cynical, she conceded. But probably the first thing.
‘I don’t know. We haven’t done anything.’ She looked away, studying the wood of her desk.
‘Bullshit.’ West let the word hang in the air, enjoying the shocked look on the church lady’s face. ‘You’re full of shit and we’re leaving if you don’t tell us what’s really happening here.’
‘I am,’ Mary said, practically squeaking.
It was a gamble, and she could be wrong, but West didn’t think the church had any money to pay them anyway. There wasn’t a job here, but there was a lie.
‘We’re going to leave.’ She stood and put the drink on the desk. The condensation seemed to flee the sides of the can to pool on the wood. ‘Thanks for the drink, but we have to go.’
‘Yeah, thanks,’ Greg said, before tipping the last of his can down his throat.
‘Wait. Please.’ Mary was pleading and it was pretty convincing. West almost lost her resolve, but they weren’t in the charity business. They needed money.
‘Good luck,’ Shelley said. His low, growly voice seemed to surprise Mary and for a moment, barely perceptibly, she dropped the act. West grinned.
‘The Jeep is getting hotter the longer we stay here,’ Chris said. He nodded to Mary as he turned to leave. ‘The captain will probably melt.’
‘I’m not your captain,’ West said. She waited for Shelley and Greg to shuffle around as they tried to get the door open. The office wasn’t made for meetings of their size, or men of Shelley’s size.
Mary spoke, stopping them with the tone change. She was all business, stern, no trace of the scared little woman left. ‘We stockpile guns too. They can’t prove it yet, but Abi is convinced.’
‘For who?’ West said, half turning back to face the desk. There were plenty of warlords in the country, and a few from outside who chose not to see national borders their ancestors had no choice in drafting.
‘The resistance.’ Mary lifted West’s can off the table and slid a coaster under it. ‘The church is opposed to the current regime and is helping to change it.’
West turned back to the guys, checking with each of them before deciding anything. It was tricky messing with the government; they were supposed to be hiding. Participating in a coup, even tangentially, was probably a bad idea.
Nobody lodged an objection and she returned to her seat. The guys stayed where they were, filling the room in as menacing a way as possible.
‘What’s the job?’
‘Kill Abi, and all his men.’ She said it easily, as though asking them to mow her lawn. She was like a different woman.
‘That all?’ West leant forward, putting her elbows on the desk and smiling when Mary glared at her. ‘That’ll be pretty expensive.’
‘No. You’ll do it for free.’ She didn’t react to West’s bark of laughter. ‘I had hoped to get your help in sympathy, but no matter.’
‘Are you high?’ West asked, forcing on her serious face. ‘Have you been sampling some of the local delicacies?’
‘Are you a nun?’ Shelley said. His voice cut through the room; West would give a lot to get people’s attention as easily as the big guy. ‘I’ve never killed a nun.’
‘I know who you are and I’ll tell your former employers.’ Mary said it as though bored, as though it was beneath her to trot the threat out. The façade fell away when she saw the large pistol West suddenly had pointed at her.
‘I’m sorry, I missed that. I couldn’t hear it over the sound of blood rushing to my trigger finger. Want to try it again?’ She might not be able to silence a room with only her voice, but when she slipped into business mode people paid attention. Firepower helped too.
‘I’m not the only one here who knows,’ Mary said quickly. ‘And I’ve arranged for the message to go out if something should happen to me.’
West’s grip on the pistol remained easy, ready. It would be simple to squeeze the trigger and call her bluff. If she’d been alone she might have, but she had to consider the guys as well, as much as it currently pissed her off.
‘I’ve never killed a bunch of nuns.’ Shelley’s tone carried more threat of violence than any weapon West had ever owned.
‘Abi is a bad man, and his men will take the church if he has his way. He will rape us and when he finds the guns he will sell them to the government.’ Mary was working hard to regain her composure. She breathed more heavily than was natural in the situation, but otherwise she was doing an admirable job for someone in the same room as the four of them.
‘So we kill him and we’re done?’ West kept the pistol aimed where it was.
‘And his men?’
‘How many?’ Chris said.
‘Ten, maybe less. No problem for you.’
‘And we’re done?’ West said. Mary nodded, a smile sliding into place. The look of superiority made West tighten her grip on the gun. ‘If you fuck us I’ll kill you, and to hell with your arranged message.’
‘Understood.’ Mary forced herself to relax in the squeaky chair. The smile she plastered on wasn’t convincing. ‘But we’re on the same side. We both want what’s right for this country, don’t we?’
‘We’ll need guns and details,’ West said.
‘I’ll have my assistant arrange it for you.’
‘When would you like this done?’
‘Now, if it’s convenient.’
‘We’ll be in the church.’ West put the gun away and they filed out.
‘We could run,’ Greg said. His hand hadn’t left his pocket, where he had ready access to the knife strapped to his thigh.
‘And kill her before we go,’ Chris agreed.
The church was stifling, the light from the active paint on the walls unreal now that she had more time to examine it. A robot shaped like a praying mantis slipped out of a hole in the wall and began polishing the floor, obeying a schedule that had nothing to do with them.
‘We’re going to do it,’ West said, staring at the robot. ‘We’ll take out this baby warlord and see what happens.’
‘Bullshit, captain.’ Greg, head and shoulders taller than her, stepped away from the look in West’s eyes when she turned to him.
‘We’re doing it.’
‘Think about it for a bit,’ Chris tried, going for a conciliatory approach. ‘We have options. Africa is huge.’
‘The captain said we’re doing it.’ Shelley shut down the conversation and sat in one of the pews.
They waited for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. They’d been in combat with worse than this Abi guy. They’d faced the cyborgs known as tanks while working for the company, and that hadn’t stopped them. It put them in hospital, but they came out on top.
Their luck would run out eventually, though, West knew. Every fight they ran toward was a risk, and when it wasn’t even their fight, when they weren’t going to get paid for it, it changed things. Forced her to think about what they were doing.
The assistant, a pretty local girl in her early twenties, eventually shuffled out from the adjacent building.
‘If you’d please come this way.’ Her English was perfect, with barely any accent. She wore a white dress that stood out against her dark skin, making it seem to glow.
They followed her out a door at the back of the church and then into a cellar beneath the old building. When she reached the heavy steel door at the bottom of the stairs she placed her hand in a seemingly random spot. Heavy locks disengaged on the far side and she opened it for them, gesturing them in and closing it behind them.
When the lights flickered to life West almost forgot why she was there.
‘Mommy,’ Greg said as he tapped her on the shoulder. ‘Is this heaven?’
The cellar beneath the church had once been used to store wine and it was almost as big as the building was above ground. Where wine had once been left to rest, the good people of the Church of the Martyrs had stacked guns. Lots of guns.
‘I’m getting a little hard,’ Chris said as he stumbled into the room, his eyes wide and roaming.
The nearer shelves were filled with older weapons, rifles and pistols that probably hadn’t seen any action since the drug wars back in the twenties. They were lovingly cleaned and repaired though, barely showing the scars of their battles. West was drawn more to these veterans than the shinier stuff further back, but Chris and Greg kept walking, heading for their own favourites. Shelley, ever practical, moved to inspect the shelves along the wall, where boxes of ammunition waited.
A table nearby contained all the equipment required to maintain the weaponry, including some automated arms for the finer work on more modern rifles.
Chris ran his hand along an entire rack of new assault rifles. His eyes were closed as his fingertips brushed each stock in turn. He made it most of the way down an aisle before removing one of the rifles.
‘I found her,’ he said, grinning as he tested the feel of it in his hands. ‘My bride.’
Greg was in the back, where an overhead light had failed and plunged his favourite part of the candy store into darkness.
‘Captain,’ he called out, waving something over his head. ‘They’ve got Arjies.’
An ARJ13 was Satan’s version of a flashbang. Where the latter temporarily blinded and deafened you, an Arjie caused your eyes to burst in their sockets and eardrums to rupture. Sometimes your brain might begin to bleed, but it was the luck of the draw.
They were outlawed by civilised people, because civilised people – in West’s opinion – were bloodthirsty assholes. They’d rather you die or lose a few limbs than do without your eyes.
‘You can take whatever you can carry,’ the girl said. West had forgotten she was there. ‘I have GPS coordinates, when you’re ready.’
West finished examining a gleaming hand cannon and turned to the girl. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Marguerite.’ She looked back at the door, as though realising for the first time she was trapped in a room with a bunch of psychos.
‘Why do you have these guns here, Marguerite?’
‘The resistance needs them. We keep them for when the army comes.’
She’s so young, West thought, marvelling that her naiveté could survive in a place like Impulgani. The resistance were pointless and the government was never coming; they couldn’t make it this far, even with their corporate sponsorship. The warlords were bastards, but they were bastards with better PR and larger armies. No government man was getting within a hundred miles of Darnleyville, so the resistance could posture all they wanted.
‘Let’s roll,’ West called to the room.
‘But, but, but,’ Greg said in cartoonish shock.
‘You heard the lady,’ Chris said. He had a rifle and a spare, and he took a bag of ammo from Shelley as he joined West at the exit. ‘We’re out.’
‘You’re no fun.’ Greg had a large scoped rifle held gingerly in his hands and a case of Arjies over his shoulder.
They left the cool cellar and waited while the girl locked up. The sun was past noon and the heat should have begun to recede, but all it seemed to mean was that the sun now hit West somewhere new. Something screamed in the forest nearby as the girl joined them and she flinched.
‘GPS.’ West said. She settled the handguns she’d chosen and started patting her pockets for her smokes.
‘You’re doing a good thing here,’ Marguerite said. ‘We might be the last thing the resistance needs. We have to survive.’
Chris stepped between West and girl. ‘GPS, please.’
The girl reached into her pocket and handed Chris a slip of paper. West realised she’d left the pack in the car, meaning the lighter would be ready to explode when they got back.
‘Be safe,’ the girl said. ‘God be with you.’
‘For fuck’s sake,’ West said. She stomped back to the car before Marguerite brought out the worst in her.