Copyright 2016 ~ D.I. Telbat
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This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locals, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
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To those distant ones
who enter dangerous boundaries
for the sake of Jesus Christ.
As I begin another novel series, I wish to thank
those who’ve been with me since the beginning
of my publishing journey.
Even a short book requires much help and effort.
Thank you, Jamie and Ed,
for your continued help with proofreading,
and Dee, for your important editing and direction.
I pray God will be glorified
with much fruit from your labor of love.
Table of Contents
– Distant Contact
As the chief chronicler of the personnel who work for the Commission of International Laborers (COIL), I would be remiss if I shared with you only the adventures of Agent Corban Dowler. Agent Titus Caspertein, once an international villain, cannot be ignored by my pen, nor should his antics and heroism be overlooked by you, the reader.
If you fell in love with Corban Dowler, Luigi Putelli, and Chloe Azmaveth, don’t worry. They’re still in the shadows, calling the shots, rescuing the helpless, and training the next generation of COIL operatives. You’ll see them often.
Though The COIL Legacy is a standalone series and may be read independently from the last, I believe fans of The COIL Series will find more fulfillment when old COIL friends of yours pop in to meet new COIL friends of mine.
This series will bring you new tech for COIL agents and more threats against God’s faithful people, so get ready for another fast-paced adventure! Thanks for reading.
Don’t stop serving; Christ is worth it all!
COIL Agent Corban Dowler leaned heavily on his forearm crutches. The wind on the secret Utah runway tore at his tweed blazer. The tarmac was wet and black, like an oily mirror.
The sound of an engine grew louder, but Corban didn’t realize how close it was until he instinctively ducked. An unmanned aerial vehicle with a flying wing design soared into the sky, blotting out the few visible stars above. Two seconds later, the UAV was gone, leaving only a dull humming from its engine, which would separate and fall back to earth once the craft reached altitude.
A car door slammed behind him. His wife, Janice, joined him a moment later, hooking her arm through his.
“You must be proud,” she said. “For two years, you’ve worked on those things. You think it’ll change COIL much?”
“I think it’ll change the way we keep our teams safe in the field from the enemies of Christ.” He felt Janice tense beside him as another UAV approached for takeoff. “But it won’t change the hearts of our enemies. That’ll take the hand of God.”
The second UAV shook the ground as it seemed to float over their heads into the wind. They turned to glimpse the shadow before it was gone, following the previous one.
“If all goes well,” Corban said, “we may be the last human beings to see the Gabriels. They’ll reach seventy thousand feet, recharge by the sun every day, and never return.”
“It’s lonely sometimes, being this secretive.”
“Sometimes safety requires secrecy. And loneliness.”
“Titus Caspertein really helped in the finishing touches, huh?”
“The Gabriels wouldn’t be what they are now without him. I had the basic concept, but he’s the one who designed the wing-mounted control surfaces and telescopic lens.”
“He’s only been with us for a few months, hasn’t he? His wife is sweet, but Titus still seems rough around the edges. His carelessness scares me.”
“I was the same way, if you remember.” He chuckled as she kissed him on the cheek.
“Oh, I remember!”
A third Gabriel lined up for takeoff.
“Yeah, Titus might have some hard lessons to learn, but I believe he’ll allow God to work in him, and eventually through him. I believe he will.” Corban said a silent prayer as the last UAV blew over them. “COIL will be better with Titus Caspertein. And stronger. With his past, and my resources—God brought us together to do what no one man could accomplish for the sake of Jesus Christ.”
Janice stared at the sky.
“Well, that’s all three of them. When will you tell Titus you used his ideas and covertly launched the Gabriels without him?”
“He’ll find out soon enough. In the Christian Special Operations field, a crisis is always around the corner. Those angels will be watching over Titus when he needs them.”
“Maybe he’ll need them in Africa. Didn’t you just send him and Annette to Zimbabwe?”
“Yep. It’s just a humanitarian mission, but God has a way of breaking us using simple things. We’ll keep them in prayer, along with the others. But the Lord will bring them through.”
“Don’t we have a plane of our own to catch?”
“Our vacation is over already?”
“We’re in the Utah desert.” She laughed and pulled him toward the rental car. “You don’t know the definition of vacation, Corban Dowler. That’s one of the reasons I love you. You never stop serving.”
“I don’t know how to stop.” He sat in the passenger seat, collapsed his leg braces behind the knees, and pulled them into the car. Janice started the engine and Corban took one last look at the sky. “Watch over him, Lord. Do what You need to do, but bring him home to us all. When You say he’s ready, the rest of the world needs Titus Caspertein.”
Ian Likasi walked in front of the wildlife reserve rangers. Twenty new recruits had passed the rigorous training, replacing the twenty he’d lost from injuries or murder in the past year. Rhino poachers in Zimbabwe didn’t only shoot rhinos anymore. Whenever possible, they ambushed his rangers, too.
“Medical kit!” he shouted.
Every man dropped to his knees and swung his camo pack off his back. In seconds, the rangers displayed their first aid gear. Not one ranger had forgotten his kit. Besides their canteens and assault shotguns, their medical equipment was the most important piece of gear inside or outside the game reserve.
Gezahgne Wolde was to blame. The soldier-turned-poacher was more than a nuisance; he was an expert killer! Ian recruited rangers from the nearby Chriedzi District, where men were weary of working in the diamond fields. Feeding their families seemed more difficult each year. But Geza killed rangers as fast as Ian could recruit and train them. Geza cared only for his rhino horns.
“Pack it up and see to your assignments!”
Ian crossed his arms and stood proudly over his men as they obeyed. They were hungry for justice, but that didn’t make them mean. Most of them were family men. They had taken the risky job to protect their brothers first, and second, to guard the endangered wildlife. They stood between armed madmen and Africa’s majestic creatures.
Long ago, Ian had cared for the animals like these men. But now, the lives lost to poacher bullets had embittered him. He still believed in being a responsible hunter and steward of God’s creation, but it was Geza who haunted Ian’s days and nights.
Someday, Ian would bring Gezahgne Wolde to justice for the ranger blood he’d shed!
Titus Caspertein was in a sour mood. He yanked on his safety harness as he pushed a netted bundle out of the back of the C-130 cargo plane. The humanitarian aid package tumbled in the sky until its chute opened and floated toward famine-stricken Zimbabwe.
Returning to the front of the cargo bay, Titus kicked at the strap locks that held the last bundle in place. Of all the skills he had for subverting evil regimes and smuggling contraband behind closed borders, the director of the Commission of International Laborers, Corban Dowler, had deployed him on a week-long airdrop operation. What a waste! And it was just day three? He’d never been so restless.
“One more!” Titus yelled at Noah Gallavan, the pilot of the vibrating plane. He made a circling gesture with his hand to signal one more pass over the Chiredzi District of Southern Zimbabwe. “Circle around, Noah!”
“Where’s Meikles?” Noah shouted over the rattle of the fuselage.
Titus pointed at the four-year-old Zimbabwean boy seated against the bay wall. Satisfied, Noah gave Titus a thumbs-up, then put the plane into a steep bank.
Shaking his head, Titus wished Corban were there in the plane with him. The director of COIL simply wasn’t appreciating Titus’ qualifications. Sure, Titus and his wife, Annette, had been with the Christian aid organization for only three months now, but still—airdrops?
Pushing with his two-hundred-pound frame, Titus edged the next bundle to the rear bay door. The wind tore at his tan cargo pants and whipped his safety line against his t-shirt. The noise was almost deafening.
It was mundane work anyone in COIL could’ve done, he thought, scowling. He hoped Annette was enjoying herself more than he was. She was in Zimbabwe as well, but in the capital of Harare, seeing to orphaned children and refugees from various conflicts on the continent. Since it was evening, Titus guessed she was already back at their hotel north of the city, York Lodge. Grilled fish was on the menu for dinner, with Egyptian cumin and perfectly ground Baharat. He could taste it already.
The light on the bay wall turned from red to green. They were over the drop zone. Titus rocked the heavy bundle to get it moving off the cargo ramp. In sixty seconds, they’d be on their way north, anticipating the sights of the capital city of a country in recovery from civil strife and racial conflict. Harare was safe from Mugabe influence nowadays. Only certain rural districts still felt the challenges of old grudges and militant corruption.
Of course, everyone felt the effects of the drought, except the room in which Titus planned to sleep for two hundred dollars a night. Why not enjoy Africa in style if he had to slave in a plane all afternoon?
With a final shove, the bundle fell free from the ramp. At the same instant, there was a sound above the noise, as if from a cat. “Eee!” Titus glanced at the front of the cargo bay bulkhead. The boy was no longer there. He didn’t know how, but the boy had gone over with the bundle!
The last bundle wobbled from its parachute far below as Titus unclipped his safety harness and plunged out the bay door.
However, as he skydived through the air, his mind registered two terrible truths at the same time: first, Meikles’ tiny body flailed hundreds of feet below him, and second, in his disgust for such a prosaic job, Titus had neglected to wear the parachute Noah had offered him.
Titus held his arms at his sides as he dove for Meikles. His eyes watered, partly from the wind and partly because he was seconds away from death.
He caught up to Meikles and spread his arms and legs to decrease his descent, but the meeting of boy and man was still a collision.
“I’ve got you!” Titus attempted to comfort, but the wind stole his voice. His fingers grabbed onto the boy’s whipping shorts and t-shirt, and drew him close.
The ground rushed up at them. Titus prayed Meikles lived through the fall, by some miracle, wrapped securely inside the limbs of a grown man. The two turned and tumbled the last few thousand feet. In his arms, the boy looked up at Titus. Was that relief on his face? Titus hoped it was.
He’d done more heroic things for less dangerous reasons. The African land below wasn’t strange to him. For years, he’d trafficked stolen items on the black market, oftentimes in the bush when cities were too policed.
He didn’t regret dying for the boy, but he did regret having such selfish thoughts that day. Now he was about to meet his Maker. Since he believed Christ had died for his sins, Titus was confident in what he would face in eternity, but that didn’t mean there weren’t things he’d meant to do, yet had postponed for temporal reasons. Life had been so short!
Titus chanced a look up—or down—at the ground. Green trees . . . rolling hills . . . brown grass . . . red and tan sand . . . earth . . .
Gezahgne Wolde sighted down his rifle at a crowd of Zimbabwean women and children as they sang and danced. He didn’t hate them, but that wouldn’t stop him from shooting them if he had cause. No, he hated the foreigners who fed them. These were his people. They were supposed to rely on him, not on the rich, white foreigners from America and Europe.
“Geza, look!” One of his soldiers pointed at the sky behind the cargo plane. “The parachute didn’t open!”
Smirking, Geza watched as a small package fell to the earth. Stupid foreigners couldn’t even supply the starving people properly. If it was rice, it would explode on impact with the earth. None of the people ran toward the package that didn’t have a parachute. It would land many miles away and probably be eaten by wild dogs, which would attract the hyenas. There would be birds and warthogs, too.
“Geza, you want us to search these people?” Another soldier adjusted his booni hat as he sat in the Toyota Land Cruiser next to Geza’s own. The wovits, or shock troops, had acquisitioned a whole fleet of the vehicles, useful for the rough travel across the savanna. “They’re returning to their villages.”
“Let them go.” Geza didn’t even lift a hand to punctuate his order; it was too hot to move. “We don’t need their food. It’s the tech in the packages we want. No, let them go for now. We’ll search their homes later.”
In the heart of Masvingo Province, Geza’s army was two hundred strong, but he had only eight men with him that afternoon. The airdrop had been a pleasant surprise after the fruitless hunt into the bush for rhinos. Rhino horns were sold for many thousands of dollars each, but radios, solar panels, and water filters could be sold at exorbitant prices as well—if any tech had been included in the airdrop.
“Send fifty men into the camps after dark,” Geza said to the nearest lieutenant, a veteran of one hundred farm raids. “Take all the tech you can find, but leave them the food. They’ll thank us for that. Arrest anyone who resists.”
“Arrest? We don’t arrest people, do we?”
“Of course not, you fool! Just don’t leave the bodies where they’ll be found before the lions get to them.” Geza started his Land Cruiser. He preferred to drive himself. His men piled into the back. “We’ll leave early again for rhinos. We have a contract to fulfill.”
None of his men protested. The bandit life on the savanna wasn’t too demanding. A few hunts each month kept them sharp between raids on white-owned farms. How else was he to keep the wovits paid and satisfied except from the spoils of a war long ended? The victors had the right to continue to pillage. At least, that was how Geza interpreted the Indigenization and Empowerment Law.
Geza appreciated the role he played in his country’s recent changes: wealth changed from the hands of minority farmers to his hands. And no one in the country had the nerve to stop him. Well, there were the rangers, and the government backed them fully, but Geza was too slippery for them!
Annette Caspertein watched the C-130 land on the airstrip outside Harare, Zimbabwe. She was no aviator, but at least one of the engines on the giant plane didn’t sound right. A little smoke trailed one wing. It seemed a miracle of God that the plane had returned at all!
She and Titus had been married for three months. Corban Dowler, still recovering from a near-fatal mission in Gaza, had wasted no time in sending the new couple into the field. Titus hadn’t anticipated a humanitarian operation, not with his high-octane past, but Annette loved her first assignment as a COIL field agent.
For years, Annette had traveled the world as a clothing model, receiving attention, and caring for others only as far as it assured her of getting her name in a magazine. But when she was kidnapped in Gaza, and rescued by Titus and Corban—that had changed her life. She no longer had a desire to be noticed. Now, she sincerely wanted to notice others.
The Zimbabwe drought had provided an opportunity to reach the hurting with food, Christian literature, and love. Most of the people spoke English, so Annette didn’t need an interpreter as she mingled with the people in various villages. She had been accompanied by Kitwe, a tiny woman nearing sixty, who was the wife of pilot and Pastor Noah Gallavan. The two had been childless for their forty years of marriage—until two years earlier. Noah had taken in an abandoned child at Meikles, the most luxurious hotel in Harare. Naturally, Noah had named the child Meikles after the hotel.
Annette waved at Noah as the slender black man exited the back of the lowered cargo ramp. A bush mechanic from the nearby building approached and circled the plane, eyeing the smoking wing.
Chuckling to herself, Annette walked toward Noah. It wasn’t easy being married to a Caspertein. She was only beginning to understand the patience required to live with Titus.
“All right, Noah. Where’d you let my husband run off to?”
“Is Kit with you?” He stopped before her.
“Yeah, she’s in the car. This heat, huh? Phew! Didn’t Meikles go with you and Titus?”
“They were both with me. Sometime after the last supply drop, they fell out the back.”
Uneasily, Annette chuckled, then frowned at the man’s serious face. Maybe, with the accent, she hadn’t heard him right.
“Fell out? What do you mean?” She stepped around Noah to check the plane herself. “Stop playing. Where is he?”
“He fell out the back. I was north of Malilangwe when I looked back. Titus did have a harness, but he must have unhooked it.”
Annette realized there was definitely a communication gap between them. She ran to the plane and skidded to a halt at the back of the ramp. The cargo bay was empty. A flexible black cord hung from the ceiling. No Titus. No Meikles.
“If you’re messing with me,” she said to Noah as he caught up to her, “you’d better fess up, Noah, because I’m about to lose it. Where’s Titus? Did you drop him off somewhere?”
“No.” He showed the palms of his hands. “He really fell out. And he refused to wear the chute. I don’t know why he would unhook his harness. Maybe Meikles was near the ramp. I fly with it open. Titus may have tried to help Meikles. I don’t know.”
Blinking at the man, Annette’s mind was blank for a few moments.
“Well, how can you just stand there now? You’re telling me my husband fell out the back of your plane, and you did nothing?”
“What do you think I should’ve done?” His shoulders slumped. “My son is gone, too. Kit was so excited that he was learning to read the Bible. I’m the one who convinced her to allow me to take the boy on his first airdrop.”
Annette placed her hand on her forehead. Maybe she was feverish from the heat. This wasn’t really happening. A man like Titus Caspertein couldn’t just fall out of the back of a plane! She couldn’t already be a widow!
“Well, did you land? I mean, to see where they fell?”
“No. I flew back here. There’s nowhere to land in those mountains.”
“So you don’t even know if they’re dead. You just left them, Noah? They could be injured and dying out there!”
“I was above five thousand feet. They’re not alive. I’m sorry.”
“The bodies. We have to get them.”
“What do you mean, maybe?” Annette gasped. Noah gazed toward the south. “What are you looking at?”
“I was just thinking. The Shangaan tribe is friendly in that area. The people we dropped food to would welcome us. But there’s a wovits warning in that area. Farm invaders, poachers, and children of war vets from the property wars of the 1970s. Some of them are very dangerous to outsiders.”
“What are you saying? We just leave our family members out there?”
“This is Africa, Annette. We can’t rush into anything without careful planning. Unless we want to die. It’s three hundred kilometers to the Malilangwe Reserve. If poachers or wovits are there, you’ll be in danger. You’re white.”
“So? I’m not leaving my husband out there to be eaten by wild animals!”
Annette elbowed past the pilot and marched back to the car. Kitwe shielded her eyes to peer in her direction.
“Where are you going?” Noah called.
“Back to the hotel. I’m getting my sat-phone and calling Corban Dowler!”
Titus Caspertein felt Annette poke him sharply in the ribs, but he still pretended to sleep. Another jab made him wince.
“Hey, that hurt!”
He started to rise, then froze, his eyes sightless but directed toward the sky. Such pain didn’t seem possible. The prod to his ribs was no longer his concern. His whole body felt both numb and immensely sensitive all at once.
“I can see your bones,” a small voice said.
Titus had difficulty gathering his senses past the agony. Once, he’d climbed out of a frozen lake in New Zealand after falling through the ice. He’d almost died that day. His body felt like that now. Pain. All over. Except the cold was replaced by suffocating heat.
“Numb is bad,” Titus mumbled an old medical adage. “Pain is good.”
“Why is pain good?” the small voice asked. It wasn’t Annette.
“Because it means I’m alive and my nerves are still working.” Titus blinked at the boy, Meikles, standing on a steep clay slope beside him with a crooked stick in his hand. “What happened?”
“We fell out of the plane.”
“Oh.” Titus dared not nod for fear the movement would start a new wave of anguish. “Makes sense.”
“Because I feel like I fell out of a plane.” Titus looked past the boy. They were in a deep wadi, eucalyptus and baobab trees on both banks. Beyond the trees were tall grasses and steep hills, almost mountains. “Climb that hill there. You’ll have to go for help.”
“I already climbed it.”
“What’d you see?”
“Just a marsh?”
“Grass. Tall grass. I couldn’t see over it.”
“There must be a farm or village within walking distance.”
“I climbed that baobab tree to see over the grass.”
“Good boy. What’d you see?”
“Wild dogs might try to eat us. I didn’t fall out of a plane to be eaten by wild dogs. How about you?”
“I don’t want to be eaten by anything.” Meikles adjusted his grip and made stabbing motions, striking Titus on the brow once. “Sorry.”
“No, I probably deserve it. Besides, it’ll blend with all my other welts.”
“This is a good stick for wild dogs.”
“How did we fall out of the plane? I don’t remember.”
“I don’t remember. I saw some birds in the marsh grass.”
“Tall or short birds?”
“Herons. Tall ones.”
“Herons.” Without moving his head, Titus surveyed the horizon as best he could. There was no sign of wood smoke that might indicate a settlement. “We’ll need food. Can you find us some heron eggs?”
“Take your stick. Stay out of mud that’s too soft to walk on.”
“Okay. But I can see your bones.”
“I understand. Go on now. You’re the hunter. Carry the eggs back here when you find some.”
The boy scrambled up the clay slope causing pebbles to trickle down on Titus, but it didn’t make him angry. The youngster would probably keep him alive, if he survived his wounds.
Cringing from the pain, he raised his right arm.
“I see my bones, too,” he said, his eyes tearing. “Oh, Lord, what are You teaching me now?”
The answer came to him the same instant. For three months, he’d been studying the Bible with Corban at his home in New York. He’d been taught that God would communicate to him through sovereignly designed circumstances. But lately, he’d been restless, faithless, and thankless, especially on the mission to Africa. Zimbabwe had seemed below him, but it was just the operation Corban had intended to teach him about brokenness. The Bible could be learned frontwards and backwards, but until a person put his faith in action, he’d never knew how weak he was.
“I’m pretty weak, Lord. It ain’t easy putting up with me, but I wouldn’t mind if this were a short lesson.”
Titus used his left hand to grip the wrist of his broken right arm from which bones protruded raggedly through the skin, an open fracture. He’d need a splint and sling soon, but one thing at a time.
A growl erupted from his throat as he gathered the courage to tug the wrist hard enough to set the bones. With as much strength as he could muster, he jerked his broken limb. His breath caught and his body went into spasms. He was close to passing out. The seizures jarred other joints and muscles, which confirmed an underlying fear: he had other injuries to address as well.
Gezahgne Wolde hung up his phone and walked outside the confiscated farm house. Southwest of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, he had claimed the farm after killing its original foreign owners. A few of the boards on the porch needed replacing, but he wasn’t the type to swing a carpenter’s hammer. Maybe when the boards squeaked or rotted enough, he’d claim a new farm that had a porch with better boards.
He lit a hand-rolled cigarette and listened to the creatures of the night. What a land! Sometimes, he stayed in one of the city hotels and watched television, but it didn’t appeal to him. The world was too advanced. It seemed like he lived on a different planet. Cell phones and fashion shows, computers and sports cars. If Geza could help it, he’d keep them all out of Zimbabwe. Foreigners might want his land. They may have even lived there before he was born. But he’d take it back, one farm at a time, and push them out. All the while, rhino poaching would keep him living comfortably.
The phone call both disturbed and excited him. It had been the Director of the Interior, a quiet supporter of Geza’s ongoing liberation movement. He’d warned Geza that a Zimbabwean couple and an American from Harare would visit the Chiredzi District the following day. The supply drop had been their doing. An American? Foreigners had visited the Singita Pamushana Resort, celebrities who wanted to experience the best of Zimbabwe, but Americans weren’t normally or personally involved in the well-being of the Chiredzi crisis.
Geza needed to hunt rhinos the following day for a Vietnam contract, but if he could manage it, he wanted to meet this American. After all, Americans embodied all the threats Geza hoped to keep out of Zimbabwe. And he wanted to see the American’s face when the man realized all the digital recorders and water filters he’d parachuted into the district had been seized by Geza’s troops.
Foreigners wouldn’t return to Zimbabwe, even if it were to help Zimbabweans. Geza would rather die before a foreigner placed a foothold in his country!
Annette Castpertein leaned against the backseat window of the four-door Mazda as Noah Gallavan drove through the night. Kitwe sat quietly in the front passenger seat. Maybe the grieving mother was asleep, or maybe she was mourning while wide awake, like Annette.
Her emotions were all over the place, but she hadn’t cried, yet. The tears would come eventually, but for now, she was angry that Titus had fallen out of the plane, heartbroken for Kitwe since she’d lost her adopted son, and overjoyed that it seemed Titus had been with Meikles in their final seconds.
The car jolted over a pothole, and Annette was reminded they weren’t driving straight south on the highway to the humanitarian drop site. Rather, Corban Dowler had arranged a slight detour before they entered the volatile Masvingo Province of animal poachers and government-sanctioned raiders.
“We’re there,” Noah said, but kept the engine running. “Annette, you awake? This is your deal. I’ll flash the lights if I notice danger.
Annette leaned between the two front seats to see the plantation-style homestead lit up by the car’s headlights. Two sheep dogs, disturbed from their slumber, trotted through the light and approached the vehicle. More light from the house suddenly illuminated a narrow porch and a man with a duffel bag.
Exiting the car, Annette shivered at the chill of the African night. She met the farmer halfway up the walk to the house. The two shook hands in the headlights Noah had left on.
“Sorry to hear about your husband,” the black man said. Annette knew from Corban that his name was Simon Vundu, but this wasn’t a social visit. “I have three of the local churches praying for you and the pilot’s family. How’s your family handling all this?”
“Oh, my family doesn’t know yet. I’ve just been focused on bringing my husband home. I mean, his body.”
“You’re very brave to do what you’re doing.”
“Thank you.” Annette accepted the duffel bag, wishing Titus were there to see her managing a clandestine exchange. “Everything’s in order?”
“Our friend on the phone knew what I had in inventory here. I’ve packed for you what he told me to include. I’m just a bush missionary, sister. I’ve never used these weapons, even if they are non-lethal. I hope they help you against wild animals or the renegades we’ve been dealing with to the south.”
“I’m sure they’ll be perfect.” Annette wanted to drop the bag and see what COIL weaponry Corban had ordered for her. She and Titus had spent two weeks at COIL’s boot camp in Mexico where they’d become proficient with a wide range of non-lethal weaponry. All she carried in Zimbabwe was a tranquilizer pen for close contact. “Thank you for your faithfulness here.”
“Stay safe. Our Lord is with you.”
They shook hands again, then Annette returned to the Mazda. She rested the duffel bag on her lap as Noah drove away, then turned onto the southbound highway. It was after midnight, and the moon was below the horizon, but the starry sky was bright enough to inspect the weapons by the light through the back window.
“Did you get what you need?” Noah asked.
“Looks like it.”
She drew out two NL-3 rifles with an effective range of one hundred yards, two NL-2 machine pistols with holsters, and five flash-and-bang grenades. In a zipper pouch she found compact field glasses, two signal flares, and a knife. On the bottom of the bag were two tarpaulins, thin and folded. For a moment, she guessed Corban had included the tarps for sleeping on the ground under the stars, but then it hit her. They were for the bodies. When she found Titus, she would have to wrap his body in a tarp for transport. At least, what was left of his body after a high velocity impact. Would she even recognize him?
“We’re two hours away from the Chiredzi District.” Noah held up his handheld GPS. “We can start our search at daylight.”
“When do you sleep, Noah?” Annette asked. “You flew all morning, and now you’ve been driving all evening.”
“My sadness keeps me awake.”
Annette closed her eyes. She knew what he meant. No parent should have to bury their four-year-old son, and no wife should have to recover the body of her husband of only three months. But Noah had summarized their situation very simply earlier that afternoon: this was Africa.
Titus had stopped the bleeding and immobilized his right arm with a stick. His collar bone felt broken as well, but he could do no more until he could see in the daylight. Dawn was an hour away. A much more debilitating injury was his right leg fracture, though the bone wasn’t protruding as his arm one had been.
Meikles whimpered beside him, snuggling against his left side for warmth. Titus’ left arm was draped over the boy, and in that fist he held a stout stick. Meikles had brought Titus four different tree branches before he was satisfied with one that would work as a club against the wild dogs.
The dogs were there, but Titus didn’t wake Meikles, whose fear and weeping might only agitate and excite the bone-crushing carnivores. With the boy’s help, Titus had managed to crawl up the steep slope of the wadi three more feet to sit on a ledge where they were farther from the animals. Though Titus had been initially concerned about a flash flood roaring down the draw if it rained, their higher elevation kept them out of the jaws of the dogs. Besides, it hadn’t rained in months in Zimbabwe.
The blood Titus had lost had soaked into the clay below, and the smell no doubt piqued the wild animals’ senses.
Titus adjusted his hip for comfort. Comfort? The idea was laughable, but he wasn’t hopeless. God was his Father, and Titus’ faith transcended the things of this world. The humbling lesson hadn’t been lost on him; seeing that God had kept him alive against all odds made him want to serve Him more. Perhaps he would rescue people with more care when Corban deployed him, he thought, simply because he now understood what it meant to be rescued.
His body had begun to swell from the trauma to his tissues and organs, but shock hadn’t incapacitated him. He’d been shot and stabbed over the years as an international thief and smuggler. After all, he was the African Serval—the wily desert cat that survived by wit and cunning. Past underground contacts had called him the Serval ever since he’d assumed the name from another man, but his old reputation wouldn’t help him in this latest predicament. He had to rely on whatever God had given him—like Meikles. Until help arrived, Titus would learn to work with the boy for a few days . . . If the wild dogs didn’t get to them . . . If the lions didn’t find them . . . If they didn’t die of thirst . . . If they didn’t die of hypothermia . . .
Annette was surely tracking him down, but would she feel much urgency? Surviving a fall from a plane was so unlikely, who would race to recover his body? Having survived at all was a miracle, Titus believed, with their landing in the eucalyptus tree above and the wadi below. The tree and the steep slope together had decreased the impact per square inch against his fragile body. Of course, he didn’t remember landing in the tree or on the slope, but the freshly-broken tree branches and marks in the clay around him indicated he and Meikles had tussled with the earth there. Gravity had won. But God was bigger than gravity.
Light reached the wadi, and Titus’ stomach rumbled for food. He nibbled on the edible eucalyptus leaves, but water was of greater importance. Meikles had found only two eggs the day before. They’d each eaten one, raw. The boy had pried apart some of the lining of the nearest baobab tree to find moisture in the trunk. The local elephants hadn’t chewed on it yet, which may have been an indication of how dry the whole land was. When Meikles had brought him pieces of soft baobab wood, Titus rung and squeezed out a few drops of water. They needed more, but Meikles was just a boy without the proper tools to cut into the moist wood.
The wild dogs trotted away, toward the marsh above the wadi where the grass grew tall. Meikles’ feet were still caked with mud from his egg hunt the evening before, so there was indeed some moisture in the area.
Predators made everything more difficult. A four year old couldn’t wander around for food and water while an invalid lay helpless nearby with nothing in his hands but a crooked club. And whatever wild dogs lingered, other alert carnivores were often drawn to the area for a competition over a bit of flesh.
“You kept us alive from a free fall, Lord. I’m interested to see how You’ll keep the hyenas at bay now . . .”
Gezangne waved his men back. The white rhino in the mopani trees was his. He’d shot dozens over the years, but this beast was one of the largest he’d ever seen. Or partially seen. The behemoth lumbered in the tall yellow grass just out of sight, except for his ears and rump.
His men were heavily armed with far too much firepower necessary to fall fifty rhinos, let alone one. Rather, they were armed for the game reserve rangers who’d been after the poachers sneaking through the wire to hunt the endangered animals. Zimbabwe’s conservatory rangers had been trained by Australian Special Forces. More foreigners training his own people, Geza thought scornfully—to kill him. Foreigners were a disease he yearned to exterminate, but he was at war with the rangers!
Geza eased his high-powered rifle muzzle ahead of him. The rhino had bad eyesight, but it had an excellent sense of smell. And its hearing was remarkable. A hunter had to watch the ears. If the ears twitched toward the hunter, it was time to run. Mopani trees or not, a charging rhino couldn’t be stopped.
But the rhino’s ears didn’t twitch, and Geza was downwind. A rhino that big had to have at least an eight-pound horn—worth almost five hundred thousand dollars. He could’ve tracked the rhino in the dark from its toilet, then drove up and shot it. But Geza fancied himself an artist, not just a careless poacher.
Unfortunately, he had to use the sound suppressor on the end of his valuable .30-06 rifle. The long, ugly pipe had been screwed onto the threaded barrel, and washers were fused inside to damper the noise and force gas outward. Without it, the rangers would be upon them in minutes since he was inside the reserve’s perimeter fence. If all the rangers came at once, they could muster seventy men. Geza’s army outnumbered them, but he was a realist; his men were nowhere near as well-trained as the rangers.
Sliding his backpack off his shoulder, he set it on the ground. He wanted nothing to hinder him now. Through his rifle scope, he aimed at the rhino. Still, he could see only the pointed ears. If the beast moved a little forward, it would be in view. Then, it would be all over, with a bullet six inches behind the eye. His 173-grain bullet would travel through the animal’s brain and drop its multi-ton body in the dust.
Five minutes passed, then ten. The longer he waited, the more Geza thought about the day before. The airdrop hadn’t been too significant, except the parcel in the end that had fallen without a parachute. And then he’d been told an American was arriving in the Malilangwe region that day. Why visit personally and make airdrops as well? It didn’t make sense. Airdrops were expensive, and usually they were made to locations too remote or too dangerous to visit personally. If the humanitarians had planned to visit the nearby Chiredzi District, they could’ve delivered the aid by truck. That made much more sense.
Unless their visit hadn’t been planned at all! Geza lowered his rifle. Something had gone wrong the day before. Something wrong enough to bring in an American cowboy. Four parcels had been dropped by parachute, yes, but what about the fifth? It had looked wrong then, and it seemed wrong now. An item had been dropped from the plane, something valuable! As valuable as a rhino horn? Probably not, but maybe more intriguing. Besides, he wanted to meet the American.
He turned his back on the rhino and snatched up his backpack as he walked past. The rhino stirred behind him. He’d get the beast another day.
“Geza!” His lieutenant gasped. “You had him! He was right there!”
“Forget it. We have something else to hunt today.”
Annette wondered if she were being selfish. Was it reasonable to use COIL’s limited resources simply to recover the body of her husband? Not to mention the risk to her own life!
But she wasn’t alone. Noah was there to recover his son’s body as well. He’d driven the entire way from Harare to Malilangwe, over two hundred and fifty miles. Though the weathered bush pilot had said little during the trip south, she knew he was hurting as much as Kitwe. What parent wouldn’t be hurting?
Having arrived, Annette sat on the bumper of their vehicle, waiting. Noah approached her from the perimeter of the wildlife reserve where several rangers lingered with shotguns.
“Did you tell them why we’re here?” Annette asked.
“No.” He stood next to her and looked back at the rangers. “I don’t want to create a stir here. Word could reach the diamond fields where some families would do anything for money. Your white husband would be a trophy for some people.”
“So how do you know his body hasn’t already been found?”
“Everyone would be talking about it. They’re only talking about the airdrop.” Noah squeezed Kitwe’s hand. She would stay with the car. “I asked if everything landed where it was supposed to. I’d flown high and compensated for the wind to carry the items into the villages. No one said anything about bodies.”
“So, we’re on our own?”
“It’s probably best this way, especially out here, even though these rangers aren’t bad men.” Noah palmed his GPS and Annette gave him his NL-3 rifle. Frowning at her, he leaned a little closer. “We may be armed, but I’d rather not attract more attention than we have to. Can you put your hair up?”
“My hair?” Annette touched her auburn locks. “My beret isn’t enough?”
“Being white is bad enough. No offense. But a white woman in the bush will draw more attention.”
“Sorry.” She tucked her ponytail under her green beret. It sat awkwardly, but at least from a distance, she hoped her features would be hidden. “Which way?”
“North, away from the reserve. You have everything?” He checked his own canteens, one on each hip, and a small pack strapped to his back. “Okay, this way. We’ll travel my flight path, but airdropped items can float up to several kilometers on the wind.”
“Titus and Meikles didn’t have a parachute.”
“Doesn’t matter. By the look of the terrain ahead, we could walk past the bodies by accident, and they could lay fifty meters away. The wind can blow anything sideways as it falls through the air.”
Annette followed him north, anxious to get moving. Her own pack contained food for two days and one of the body tarps. If they had to sleep in the bush, the tarps would do as sleeping bags, but Annette preferred to get Titus’ body wrapped up quickly and find transportation to the nearest airport. Since marrying Titus, she hadn’t seen her family in California much. In her loss, she wanted to be near loved ones, even if her family members weren’t Christians.
She’d also have to track down Titus’ family, who hadn’t even attended their wedding. He had a brother who was a seismologist somewhere in Alaska, and a sister who was an archaeologist, usually on site in a foreign country. Since Titus had been a criminal for years, his list of sins against people near and far was quite long. He might’ve given his life to Christ, but the consequences and wounds caused by those sins wouldn’t disappear overnight. Even so, it was going to take her a long time to get past the pain of losing him. But maybe, Annette pondered, she could have a small part in bringing the Caspertein family some healing even though Titus was gone.
They reached a low ridge and paused to scope the terrain ahead with binoculars. There were ravines and wadis, baobab and thick acacia stands. In some directions, they could see for miles, and in other directions, steep hillsides, even cliffs, hindered their view. Such rugged land gave Annette a degree of despair. What if she never found their bodies? The wild dogs would tear them into—
“This is Africa,” Noah said, and marched on.
His statement seemed to answer her question, but it was unsettling, too. Africa was unforgiving, he seemed to say. Nothing was easy in Africa. When things went wrong, only those who moved on survived. Annette called to him ten paces ahead.
“Noah! There’s people!”
Noah crouched and gazed where she pointed. Eight Land Cruisers crawled northward a kilometer away.
“Wovits!” He said it like a curse word. Grabbing her elbow, he pulled her into a ditch where the skeleton of an antelope lay. “Stay down. We prayed together at the car before leaving. Now would be a good time to pray again.”
“Are they the soldiers left over from the liberation?”
“And their sons. They’ll kill you. I’m sorry. This is a mistake.”
Annette’s heart pounded as the engines of the vehicles moved ahead, prowling where few vehicles had gone before.
“It’s okay.” Annette nodded at Noah. “They went on ahead. God is with us. And we have these.”
She tapped her NL-3 rifle.
“Non-lethal weapons won’t help us with these men.”
“Have you seen this gun in action?” Annette pulled the carbine firmly against her shoulder. “I have. It fires six hundred rounds per minute. If we get into trouble, we get to high ground and hold it. I have Corban Dowler on speed dial.”
She patted the sat-phone on her belt.
“Only the wife of Titus would talk like that.”
“I guess his confidence rubbed off on me.”
“Then you should know the whole story. In the Shangaan village, one of the rangers said the wovits came through and confiscated the digital Bible devices and water filters we airdropped with the food yesterday. Annette, the wovits saw the airdrop. They may even know we’re here.”
“Then, we’re even. We know they’re here, too.” Annette smiled for him, imagining Titus would’ve smiled right then, too—to show his confidence for others. Perhaps he had indeed rubbed off on her, at least his good qualities. “Give me the GPS. I’ll lead. You stay farther behind to watch my back. We don’t have radios, so don’t yell if you see someone before I do. Just shoot me in the back.”
“They’re tranquilizer pellets, Noah. I have to inhale the toxin to pass out. Shoot me in the back to get my attention, that’s all. You won’t tranq me if you shoot me in the back. Haven’t you been trained with NL guns?”
“Of course not! I’m a pilot. What use are guns to me?”
“Right. Stay about twenty meters behind me, okay? Let’s get our guys and get out alive, huh?”
“You sure you weren’t born in Africa, Annette Caspertein?”
“Because you are fearless!”
Titus signaled with his arm to Meikles across the wadi, five feet up the nearest baobab tree.
“A little higher!” It hurt to move even his good arm, but the hunt for water and food kept his mind off the pain, and the boy needed the encouragement. “Good, Meikles! Now, dig into the tree right there. Is it soft?”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to eat the tree.”
“We won’t eat this part. We’ll just squeeze it for water like yesterday.” Titus checked up and down the wadi. The wild dogs hadn’t returned since dawn. “How’s it coming?”
“My stick isn’t sharp enough.”
“Keep trying. You’re doing great. Try to find a crack to fit your stick into.”
Titus shut out the desperation from his mind. Without water, he was as good as dead in twenty-four hours. He lay his head against the clay slope. With his feet elevated uphill, he wiggled his broken leg. He could still feel his toes, but the swelling was worse. With the blood loss from his arm and whatever internal injuries he had, his condition would worsen without water intake.
“Surrender, you bandit!” Meikles yelled at the tree and weakly attacked it with his stick.
With a little focus, Titus had discerned his compass points. The wadi ran north to south. The wildlife preserve was south. Meikles could go for help. The distance wasn’t more than ten miles. Could a four year old make such a trek? That was the problem with wildlife reserves and Africa in general: there was a lot of wildlife, inside and outside the reserve. A four-year-old child would be easy prey, even with his trusty stick.
The worst case scenario, Titus considered, would be to die and leave the boy alone. Would that be any different than sending him for help? He guessed not. It was time to change tactics, but first, he would need water and food while Meikles went for help.
“Meikles! I have a new plan. Reach out on that branch and get some of that fruit. See them? They’re as big as your head.”
“It’s all hairy. Disgusting!”
“Hunger doesn’t know disgusting.”
“Nothing. Just do your best. Try to bring me two.”
“Okay, but I’m not eating any!”
Titus chuckled and touched his safety harness. Two straps buckled across his chest like a bandolier. He’d avoided unfastening the straps because he felt the bruises underneath. But now, as he pulled at one buckle, the rest of the harness came apart in his fingers. Threads of what should’ve been an impervious nylon and poly blend fell free as if it were grass.
“I got one, Titus!”
“Excellent! Keep it up, you mighty tree hunter! Are you sure you’re not ten or twelve years old?”
“Yes! I’m only four!”
Plucking away more pieces of the harness, Titus realized why it was in such terrible condition. The harness hadn’t been worthless after all, even after he’d unclipped it from the plane’s safety line. It had saved his life, protecting his vital organs during the collision with the ground, absorbing the abuse of the impact.
“This adventure just keeps getting stranger, Lord.” He couldn’t hold back the tears—moisture he didn’t mean to waste. His survival was too amazing to recount to himself, let alone to someone else. If he died the following day, he would pass into eternity in no less awe of how God had allowed him to survive the fall. After all, maybe his work was finished on earth. He’d kept Meikles alive for some grand purpose, perhaps.
But there was regret in his heart still. If he’d focused on what it really meant to be a Christian COIL agent, he would’ve remained dedicated to helping others, no matter the job. If he hadn’t been so distracted in the plane, his own distaste for lowly work embittering him, Meikles might not have fallen from the plane at all! Instead of aiding people, his complaining heart could’ve killed Meikles.
He thought of Annette. If he died now, she would grieve, but she was a strong woman. Most likely, she would continue to work for COIL, touching lives in profound ways, maybe even covertly.
“Two hairy fruit!” Meikles announced as he tossed the football-shaped fruit onto the slope. They rolled to the bottom of the draw, which the boy fetched again and planted them in the clay next to Titus. “Now what?”
“Now that you got us a little food, we need water. Can you help me take my shirt off?”
“Lift your arms up.”
“I can only lift one. You’ll have to manage.”
Titus tore the t-shirt in two places to remove it. If he knew he’d be in the bush and not in the back of a cargo plane, he would’ve worn something more durable. A moment later, Meikles pulled it over the arm splint. The boy took a step back, the shirt in his hand.
“You’re all . . . black!”
Daring a glance down at his swollen torso, Titus saw that his skin was black with blood where the straps had crossed his chest.
“God, help me.” He rested his head against the slope again, exhausted from the activity. “Go up to the marsh, Meikles. Dig a hole in the mud. When it fills up with water, use the shirt to soak up the water.”
“But you said there are dogs out there.”
“If you see the dogs—no. If you even hear the dogs, you run back here to me, or you climb a tree, fast. God made you smarter than those drooling mutts, okay?”
“Maybe we’ll be rescued soon. I’ll wait here with you.”
“Meikles, you have to go. I’m in bad shape. Without water, even dirty shirt water, I could die in the night. You have to be my hero today. You have to bring me some water. It ain’t easy being a man sometimes, but God will give you the courage. What do you say?”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
“Thank you. I won’t stop praying the whole time.”
“Can you pray now? Papa always prays for me.”
“Of course.” Something cracked inside Titus, and he sensed it was God doing His miraculous reshaping of his heart. He’d never prayed over a child before! “Dear Father, Meikles and I are trying to be brave. We are men who need Your help and Your protection today. We know our families are searching for us, but You’re the One who has to keep us alive. Since we are Your children, we know You hear us when we pray. In Jesus’ mighty name, amen.”
“Amen.” Meikles took a deep breath. “Count for me.”
“Count for you?”
Meikles knelt on the bottom of the wadi clay, like a sprinter in starter blocks.
“Tell me when to go.”
Titus was reminded of his own youth, racing his older brother along the banks of the river in Arkansas.
“Three . . . two . . . one . . . go!”
Meikles, with the t-shirt wrapped around his small fist, dashed away. And Titus continued to pray.
Gezahgne stood in the same place as he had the day before. Gazing to the northwest, he imagined the parcels and their parachutes floating to the earth. And then one parcel falling without a chute.
“About there.” Geza used both arms to indicate the direction for his lieutenants, all seven with their own vehicles. “I’ll take the center track. Spread out to my left and right to comb the ground.”
“Geza, we only drove this far because we knew the route. No one’s ever taken trucks into those hills. There are no roads, only trails for bushmen.”
“Then go on foot, you fool!” Geza adjusted his canteen, suspecting he’d be on foot soon enough himself in this terrain. “Just get to that parcel before anyone else. Whatever fell from that plane is worth it. The man who fails me gets the tree for a day.”
Geza smirked at his most loyal men as they saluted him. He kept them rich with money, women, and land. The promise of adventure and the threat of torture tied to the camp tree kept them in line.
“Radio me when you find something. If Americans are involved, then we’re on the international stage today. Do not fail me! Let’s go.”
He climbed into the lead Land Cruiser and checked ahead for a way through a grassy ravine, its dangers veiled by the brown foliage.
A muffled gunshot made him jump. He threw open his door and marched to the next vehicle where a man screamed incoherently.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Geza shoved one soldier aside to see the screamer, who was doubled over, his booted foot a bloody mess. “How did this happen?”
“He shot himself, Geza,” a recent recruit said. “It was an accident.”
“Get him out.” Geza moved back and unclipped his holster. “Hurry up! Set him here.”
Four men lifted the wounded soldier, as young as twenty, and positioned him in the shade of the vehicle. Blood seeped through the man’s torn boot. His fingers trembled inches from his foot.
“Clumsiness is a liability!” Geza glared at his troops. “If you’re clumsy, you’ll be left behind.” He drew his sidearm. “I’m saving this fool hours of suffering and bleeding to death. The hyenas would finish him off otherwise. We are moving out!”
Geza took the wounded man’s canteen, placed it in front of his gun muzzle to silence the shot, and pulled the trigger. The handgun still made a loud noise, but nothing that would attract the rangers. Besides, the rangers were most concerned about poachers inside the reserve, not outside.
With his boot, Geza kicked the body into the mopani scrub. Trumpeter hornbills, startled by the commotion, darted into the sky and flew toward the mid-morning sun. The rest of the soldiers stared at their dead comrade.
“Don’t ruin this for me!” Geza holstered his weapon and tossed the ruined canteen onto the body of its owner. “Move out!”
While Geza returned to his vehicle, he happened to glance behind the convoy. Movement! He stared at the tan hillside. A bird or a dog, perhaps? No, this was not the time to dismiss his instinct, which told him enemies were closing in on what he wanted. He had sixty men with him. No one else could muster that kind of firepower without his government contacts calling him to warn him.
He turned away from whoever was following him and started the truck. It was time to do what he did best: take what he wanted so others couldn’t have it!
Annette exhaled with relief as the convoy of vehicles moved out of sight.
“That was close.” Noah lowered his rifle. “He shot his own man! We have to turn back. This is madness!”
“No, we keep going.” Annette brushed off her knees and climbed the next hill. “Even with vehicles, they aren’t traveling faster than us.”
“Even if we do find the bodies first, we can’t remove them without a vehicle of our own. Annette, we achieve nothing by claiming the bodies first if it means we die in the process. They’re just bodies! Their souls are with the Lord.”
“I know that!” She slid down a boulder and waded through dying bushes. The drought was killing everything, but the drought hadn’t killed the young man in the scrub to her left. She paused a few seconds to remember the image. “I thought we were saving Titus and Meikles’ bodies from wild animals. It was a mission of respect. I want to bury Titus in Arkansas where he grew up. But now this is also about morality. The Bible says to stand for justice, to speak for what is right. This has turned into a COIL mission as much as it is a body recovery operation. We can’t allow those murderers to claim Titus’ body as a trophy.”
“A COIL mission? I’m a pilot. You’re a new COIL agent. Neither of us is—”
“Look!” She pointed at the sky, far to the northeast. “Are those buzzards?”
“Let me see this.” Noah took the GPS from her hand. He tilted and shook it, as if it displayed the wrong signal. “That’s a half-kilometer off my flight path.”
“Yeah, but buzzards! They’re circling around something on the ground, right?”
“This is Africa. It could be a deer killed by the dogs.”
“I say we investigate. The army hasn’t changed their course yet. Maybe they haven’t seen the birds. It could be the bodies!”
“We should turn back.” Noah’s voice sounded increasingly strained. “The proper military should be out here doing this. At least, if we had some of the reserve rangers, we could do this more safely. Maybe tomorrow we could return.”
“The wovits will have the bodies by then, if the jackals haven’t already gotten to them.” Annette stepped closer to Noah. He was tall, but Annette’s six-foot frame was fit. She hoped her determination showed on her face. “Turn back if you want to, but I’m going toward the buzzards. I may be an idiot, but this is about more than recovering bodies now. It’s about stopping those men from winning. It’s a matter of principle that compels me now. I’m sorry, Noah, that you don’t see this. Just because we’re in Africa doesn’t mean we sit idle while evil claims another victory.”
They stared at each other for a moment, then Noah offered the GPS back to her.
“Those birds are about three miles away. If we run we can be there in thirty minutes, long before the soldiers get there in their vehicles, even if they change direction now. But if it’s not Titus and Meikles, then you need to agree to leave with me. We can come back with rangers from the reserve.”
“That’s your condition?”
“Titus wouldn’t want you to die for his empty shell, Annette.”
“Fine.” She adjusted her beret for the jostle ahead if they were to run for thirty minutes. “Give me a thirty meter lead. And one more thing.”
“What is it?”
“Thank you.” She forced a smile, though she felt it would be a long time before she smiled genuinely through her grief. “Thanks for not tranquilizing me and carrying me back to Malilangwe.”
“Now, there’s a thought . . .”
“Very funny. See you at the birds.”
Annette jogged away, thankful she wasn’t continuing alone.
Titus noticed the carrion-eating birds above him a moment before he saw the hyenas. Two of the black-spotted, rust-colored carnivores trotted down the bottom of the wadi. Their attention had been on the birds as Titus held perfectly still, but their noses were too keen. They sensed him and stopped to investigate.
Ten feet below him, they whined and sniffed at the clay where he’d bled the day before. Normally wary of humans, these creatures, with snouts stained red from past kills, remained close, scouting for a way up the steep slope. Titus licked his cracked lips and took a practice swing with his club.
Suddenly, he set the club on his lap and inserted his fingers into his mouth to blast a shrill and loud whistle. Meikles needed to be warned. Wild dogs could usually be heard as they approached, romping and yelping along the way. But hyenas were stealthier, squealing and whining only when their prey was cornered.
Meikles should’ve been back already. Titus checked the rim of the wadi. The boy had scrambled up the clay wall a short distance away, a little north from where the bank was steepest, to approach the muddy marsh above. Had the dogs already attacked him? Or other hyenas? If Meikles had indeed been killed, the birds above would’ve descended, yet they remained observant from their soaring height.
Titus whistled again, then grabbed his club as one hyena lunged up the slope at him. Unable to get a running start, the animal returned to the bottom of the wadi. Another foot closer, and the beast would’ve felt a direct strike on the muzzle.
One hyena wandered up the draw, patient, it seemed, to wait and search for another route to their prey.
“Hey!” Titus called, not wanting the large male to pick up Meikles’ scent. “Get back here. We’re not finished with each other!”
The hyena paused and looked back. But the wanderer continued out of sight. Titus was left alone with the smaller female, her mouth open and panting as she watched him.
“It doesn’t matter how much you foam at the mouth, your brain is still smaller than mine.” She tilted her head at his voice and yelped. “You really don’t need to do this. Just wait till tomorrow, and I’ll be dead. You’re wasting energy on me unnecessarily.”
The hyenas’ eyes shifted toward something above Titus. Pebbles trickled against his bad leg. He frowned at the male hyena as it pranced anxiously at the edge of the wadi bank thirty feet above him.
“It ain’t easy underestimating the genius of you two.” Titus pointed his club at the larger and apparently smarter killer. “Stay! No, you stay there! Don’t move!”
But the male didn’t stay. He nimbly stepped off the bank and slid on all four paws down the slope, directly at Titus.
Titus glanced down at the female, who licked her jowls expectantly, as if she’d been fed precisely this way a thousand times. In seconds, Titus would be knocked off his narrow shelf by the male, into the jaws of the female.
The angle was awkward, but Titus sat up and cocked his clubbing arm over his head. The male hyena weighed over forty pounds, and he had nothing to lose. Titus’ club weighed less than ten pounds, and he had everything to lose if he didn’t swing the club with enough force.
The hyena skidded on his paws until he was within ten feet of Titus. Then, the male surrendered to his downward momentum and took several strides. With his powerful hind legs, he launched himself at Titus. Titus fell backward as he swung his club. He struck the hyena where he aimed, high on the left shoulder, knocking him sideways. The hyena’s momentum carried him with a yelp over Titus’ extended legs.
Titus felt himself sliding. He dropped his club to cling to the hillside. Coughing painfully, he waited for the dust to settle. After stabilizing himself again on his shelf, he looked down at the creatures. The male rolled over and found his feet, though he favored a foreleg. The female yipped at Titus, apparently ignorant that her mate had been injured while trying to feed her.
“What?” Titus chuckled and reached for his club. “You thought I’d give up without a fight?”
But his club wasn’t there; it had rolled down the slope to the bottom of the draw.
“Well, that isn’t very fair.”
The male hyena sniffed at the club that had hurt him, then he turned and trotted away. Seeing the hyena disappear up the wadi would’ve been cause for celebration, except Titus knew the crafty animal intended to try another sliding assault from above.
Looking around him, Titus realized the hyena had even knocked his football-sized fruit down the slope. He had nothing with which to fight. Exasperated, Titus squinted at the late blue and bright morning sky.
“You’re kind of dragging this out, aren’t You?” He sighed. “It’s okay. I have a little strength left. I won’t give up.”
He drew his good leg under him. Though it was his good leg, it felt terribly bruised, and the knee was swollen. With some effort, while leaning against the slope, he stood upright. His head swam from the new position as his heart pumped more vigorously. His broken leg hung limply, throbbing painfully. If he thought he had time, he would’ve removed the leg splint stick to use it as a club, but there was no time, and the splint-stick was only two fingers thick.
The male hyena again appeared on the ledge above.
“Showdown, huh? That’s right!” Titus barred his own teeth. “You think about this real carefully. Remember how you got hurt last time you got smart with me.”
On his one good leg, Titus hopped to his left on the narrow shelf. If the hyena began his descent on target, Titus guessed the animal wouldn’t be able to correct himself when he start down. Maybe, if Titus could shuffle his body aside at the last instant, he could dodge the hyena once he projected himself.
“Come on!” he screamed. “Let’s do this! You’re ready, I’m ready. Apparently, God’s got a room up yonder for me. What’s holding you back?”
The male pranced back and forth. Titus knew the carnivore would come eventually. The instinct to kill would win over the need to be wary. And below, the female squealed with the anticipation of warm blood.
Gezahgne kicked the tire of his lead vehicle and cursed the African savanna. His men stood aloof as he threw his canteen at the side of the Land Cruiser, then drew his sidearm to shoot the half-filled container. But he stopped himself there. He limited his tantrum, aware that a shot fired now would draw rangers, if they were in the area; he didn’t like operating this close to the reserve.
The ruined tire wouldn’t have been such a tragedy, except it was the second flat he’d gotten in thirty minutes. He had no more spares, and the seven other vehicles were already limping on their own spares.
Worse yet, they had found no sign of what had dropped from the plane the day before. Geza didn’t think he was remembering wrongly, but he’d heard the whispers from his men. Some thought they’d seen the object with no parachute fall farther to the east, and some thought it had hit ground to the west. The parcels with parachutes had drifted on the wind currents several miles to the southeast, where the hungry Zimbabweans had aptly gathered the offerings from the sky.
The east. Geza shielded his eyes from the noonday sun. Even without a parachute, maybe the wind had carried the object east. He would’ve asked his men for input, but one of the consequences of their fear of him, he realized, was that they’d tell him what they thought he wanted to hear, but not what he needed.
“What’s that?” He suddenly pointed to the east. Birds circled something beyond a rocky bluff. Geza dove into the truck and grabbed his rifle, then signaled to his men. “You ten, come with me on foot. The rest, follow us in the trucks. Move!”
He didn’t wait to answer questions about the disabled vehicle. If his men were brighter, they might have noticed one of nature’s most telltale signs of pending death: the circling birds of prey.
The crashing noises behind him told him the ten men were following on foot through the scrub brush. Once they reached the top of the rocky bluff, they’d be able to see whatever the birds saw.
In his haste, Geza realized he’d forgotten to recover the canteen on which he’d taken out his frustration, so now he had no canteen! Pausing in his uphill climb, he eyed the ten men behind him. They were hard, ruthless men. Not one of them was particularly special to him which was good, since he’d kill one for a full canteen as soon as he needed a drink.
Geza was the first to reach the top of the bluff. There was more happening five hundred meters away than even his trained senses could comprehend right away. But he realized he wasn’t too late to insert himself into the situation—whatever that was.
A deep wadi snaked from north to south. A man stood against one bank of the wadi. Geza used his rifle scope to see him clearer. A shirtless man? And a hyena below him. The man seemed to be unarmed.
Above the man and to the northwest was a pack of wild dogs gathered around a baobab tree. The tree stood on dry ground in the midst of what appeared to be marshland where tall phragmites reeds grew. The dogs surrounded the tree—something or someone obviously in the tree, though Geza couldn’t see what from that distance.
But there was more. He swung his scope south fifty meters. Two men approached on foot. A white man was in front, and armed. The American!
“Flank them!” Geza ordered his men. “You three, left. You three, right. The rest with me. Take them alive. Go!”
They charged down the hill. A foreigner dared to invade his country? Whatever this American had come for—Geza intended to take it and make him pay. This was certainly more exciting than hunting for rhinos!
Annette approached from the east, avoiding a vast ravine on her left. She ran ahead, drawn by the yips of wild dogs. Green grass waved in the breeze, standing taller than her head. Though she was hesitant to charge blindly through the wetland grass, the noise of the dogs caused her to feel great urgency.
“Wait for me!” Noah yelled, but she didn’t look back.
Instead, Annette circled toward the wadi, searching for a path through or around the barrier of grass. Her boots sank an inch into sticky mud, tugging at her soles every step.
Brown flashed to her left. She saw a large male hyena now standing forty yards away, overlooking the wadi. Seeing her, he sauntered confidently toward her, his head low. Annette sighted down her NL-3 and pulled the trigger. She vaguely remembered her COIL training in Mexico, where master instructor Brody Sladrick had explained that tranquilizer pellets did have some effect on animals, depending on body mass.
The hyena snapped at the pellets that stung his muzzle as Annette fired another five-round burst. The vicious male charged with a snarl, then slowed suddenly and lay down.
“What’s going on?” Noah asked, winded from catching up to her. “A hyena? There could be more nearby. Don’t go ahead without me!”
“Don’t get left behind!” Annette said, then corrected herself. “Sorry, Noah. Just please stay with me.”
Barrels first, they edged through the grass toward the sound of the wild dogs. Daylight ahead brought them to a stop.
“They’ll attack.” Noah moved to her right shoulder. “We go together. I’ll shoot the ones on the right, you shoot the ones on the left.”
“Just push them away from the bodies.” Annette drew a flash-and-bang grenade from her pack. “They’re just dogs, right?”
“Nothing is that simple.” Noah shook his head. “This is Africa.”
Together, they moved through the wall of grass. The marsh mud was deeper, almost over their boots. Noah used his free hand to hold Annette’s elbow, guiding her with him as they struggled ahead.
They emerged from the grass twenty yards from dry ground where a baobab tree grew. Two dozen wild dogs, their coats a variety of brown, white, and black, surrounded the tree. Two dogs had managed to climb into the lowest branches of the tree, which seemed to excite the others into a frenzy.
A sizeable baobab fruit dropped forcefully from the upper reaches of the tree. The hard shell struck one dog. The dog yelped as it was knocked from the tree.
“In the tree!” Noah yelled over the ruckus, perhaps too loudly since his voice drew the dogs’ attention. He fired at one dog that faced him on the right, then another.
Annette couldn’t shoot effectively with one hand still gripping the grenade. She tossed it underhanded toward the base of the tree.
“Grenade!” she yelled, then covered her ears and shut her eyes, praying Noah did the same.
The explosion rattled her teeth and shook her bones, then she and Noah fired into the white smoke. The dogs dashed about in chaos, fleeing, their predatory senses disrupted by the stinging smoke, loud noise, and bright flash.
Noah moved toward the tree. The last dog darted past Annette, tail between its legs.
In seconds, Annette was out of the mud and on dry ground. The tree loomed above them thirty feet high. Whatever was in the tree was alive, moving lower, branch by branch. Noah hung his rifle over his shoulder as he reached up to the lowest branches.
“Come to me. I’ve got you!”
Annette eyed the grass with concern. Two tranquilized dogs lay still in the mud, but for how long? The hyena worried her, too. For the moment, they were safe, along with whomever they’d rescued in the tree.
But there were no bodies, which left a hollow feeling in Annette’s soul. She struggled to hold back a sob. Now seemed like a good time to cry. There was no Titus. He might never be found. Even if she would’ve found his body torn apart by animals, at least there would’ve been some closure.
“Annette!” Noah called. “Look who it is!”
She turned to see a small boy who held a short stick in one hand and a muddy t-shirt in the other.
“Meikles?” Annette’s mouth couldn’t function to say more than that.
“He survived!” Noah stood proudly next to his son, his free hand on the lad’s shoulder. “God saved him.”
“Meikles!” Annette lifted the boy’s chin in her hand so his eyes met hers. “Where’s Titus? Did he . . .? Is he . . .?”
“He’s in the wadi.” He held up the dirty shirt. “He’s hurt, so I was getting him water.”
“Water?” Annette’s breath came in gasps. Her knees felt weak. “He’s alive? He’s hurt?”
Titus didn’t lay back down when the hyena left the wadi rim above him. He guessed it was just a matter of time before the crafty creature devised some other sinister plan to knock him down the slope.
Then the noise of the explosion washed over the savanna, and Titus knew his rescue was imminent. With his good leg trembling and near exhaustion, he eased down to a seated position.
“You might want to run along, girl,” he said to the nervous female. Sulfuric smoke from the explosion wafted into the wadi. “I don’t think your mate is coming back.”
But the instinct to kill and eat was too great, and Titus was too close to her blood-stained muzzle for her to abandon him. He closed his eyes, imagining all that might follow—a bone-jarring truck ride to a landing strip. The painful setting of bones in a hospital. Recovery in the States—though secretly, since the civilized world still knew him as the Serval, an exiled criminal. All the while, he would grow from the experience. One thing for sure, he’d never again think that a job caring for people was below him! And it was probable he’d wear a parachute during the next airdrop mission!
“I see you made a new girlfriend in my absence!”
Titus looked up the slope as Annette grinned down from the rim. She was geared in an African commando outfit. He had expected a rescue team . . . but led by Annette?
“Meikles is up there somewhere,” he said. “He went to get me water.”
“He’s with Noah. He’s safe.”
“In that case, you can tranq my carnivorous girlfriend here, and take me home.”
He watched proudly as she aimed the NL-3 rifle and peppered the hyena’s face with stinging pellets. The infuriated beast snapped at Titus once more, then, drunk on the toxin, lay down to sleep.
Noah and Meikles appeared at Annette’s side.
“No time to talk,” the pilot said. “We have company. Wovits!”
“How strong?” Titus’ stomach did flip-flops. He was in no condition for armed conflict. “Babe, slide that phone down to me. Noah, how many are they?”
“Ten or so, with a whole convoy behind.” Noah drew his son closer. The boy sucked on a canteen. “We might have two minutes.”
Annette didn’t slide the sat-phone to Titus; she slid down the slope herself. She overshot Titus, then Titus slid off his perch into her arms at the bottom of the wadi, though groaning in pain. She rested his head on the sleeping hyena, and held her canteen to his mouth.
Titus plucked the phone from her belt and punched redial. Corban Dowler’s welcoming voice was clear.
“We’ve got danger close, Boss.”
“I’m tracking you by the low-orbit Gabriels. There are eight vehicles about ten minutes from your location.”
“There are more on foot a lot closer.” Titus gazed up at the blue sky. “If you’ve got those UAVs up and flying, how about some offensive measures?”
“We’ve got nothing like that yet, but I’m ahead of you. I took the liberty of calling in a few rangers from Malilangwe. They’re about five minutes from you.”
“We have only one minute.”
“Better get off the phone with me then. We’re praying here.”
Titus chuckled and turned the phone off. Corban was all business and no waste. He clipped the device to Annette’s hip, then waved at Noah.
“You two, come on down. We’ll have to stay alive until the rangers get here in a few minutes.”
Noah and Meikles slid on their seats down the slope.
“Titus, you need a hospital.” Annette cringed at his blackened torso. “We shouldn’t even be moving you. You should see yourself!”
“No choice, babe.” He lifted his good arm toward Noah. “Give me a hand. Get me up to stand against that baobab tree. Hurry!”
He groaned as Annette and Noah half dragged him up the more gradual bank on the west side. They leaned him against the tree, his breath shallow, his bad leg throbbing.
“Now what?” Annette asked. “You can’t fight. You can barely stand!”
“Noah, give me your bush jacket. Put it on me. Quickly! I need to look semi-normal. Do you have more grenades?”
They forced his arms into Noah’s dark green jacket, then Annette handed him a flash-and-bang grenade.
“Now, listen. My injuries are bad. I may not even make it out the way things are.”
“Titus, we can—”
“Listen!” His eyes pleaded with Annette. “Game rangers are on their way. We can’t fight these wovits like this. Take Meikles down the wadi. Go!”
Noah drew his son into the bottom of the ravine.
“Titus, you can’t fight them alone!” Annette wiped at angry tears. “Not alone!”
“I’m not going to fight them.” He smiled, a strange peace inside him. “What are you always telling me? My tongue must be good for something, right? Go, babe. I love you. God has this already sorted out. Wait and see.”
“I’m not leaving you. I just found you!”
“These wovits are no joke. I’ve crossed them in the north. I’m just going to buy us a little time. Now, get!”
Reluctantly, she backed away.
“Don’t say anything stupid and get yourself killed, Titus Caspertein!”
As soon as they were out of sight to the south, Titus noticed movement across the wadi and northward, on his side of the gulch.
“All right, Lord,” he mumbled, trying to stand up straighter, even through the agony. “It’s just You and me. Again. Please keep my wits in order for a little longer. Then, I wouldn’t mind passing out. Amen.”
Titus pocketed the grenade in Noah’s jacket, then hooked his thumb casually in a tear in his trousers. He took a deep breath, shut out the pain, and steadied his glare on the fierce soldiers prowling closer.
Gezahgne remained in the grass while his men surrounded the white man against the baobab tree. He approached once the American was adequately guarded.
“Where are your friends?” Geza asked as he shouldered between two of his men. “We know you’re not alone.”
“Oh, you mean my girlfriend?” The American nodded toward the wadi. “She’s down there.”
Geza glanced down the eroded slope at a dead hyena.
“Funny. You make jokes, but now you’re my prisoner. Not so funny now, maybe.”
“A lot of men have made me their prisoner.” The foreigner raised his eyebrows. “It never worked out too well for them. It’s like God has me in His protective hand.”
Geza did his best to control the surprise on his face. Even his own men shriveled in the man’s presence. This American needed to be taught some manners! And yet, American or not, this was no ordinary man. His face appeared bruised, and his leg was in a splint. Had he been dragged behind a charging rhino? And the look in his eyes—almost like boredom, or fearlessness.
“I have sixty men with me. You think God will save you?”
“He could. Or maybe He wants me to exercise a little faith. Who’s your leader? You?”
“Of course!” Geza hitched up his pants and squared his shoulders. How could anyone doubt he was the commander? “I am Colonel Gezahgne Wolde, expert marksman and trophy hunter of the mightiest African beasts. I am Geza!”
The American sighed slowly as he surveyed the other soldiers.
“I don’t know.” The man shook his head. “You can’t be too tough if you need all these men to surround me.”
“I don’t need all these men!” Geza removed his rifle from his shoulder and aimed it at the mouthy American’s chest. “I can kill you myself. Now, tell me, why are you here?”
“You? A tourist? I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d buy that.” He gestured at Geza’s rifle. “Nice .30-06. Good rhino gun, huh? I sold five cases of those to a friend in Ethiopia about six years ago.”
“Ethiopia?” Geza looked down at his weapon. “My brother bought this in Ethiopia for me three years ago. It’s the best gun I’ve ever owned.”
“Should be. It’s American made. Classic finish. Bolt action. You use custom rounds? You must with that silencer. How many rhinos you drop this year?”
Geza examined the stranger with caution. This wasn’t the conversation he’d imagined he’d have with a foreigner. The man spoke like he knew the African black market.
“Why are you in Zimbabwe?”
“Have you ever read the Bible?”
“Answer my question!”
“Jesus Christ is in here.” The American touched his chest. “He compels me through His Word to care for the hungry.”
“The airdrop. I know. Then why are you out here if you fed the hungry from the air?”
“Well, you’re witnessing the conclusion of a recovery operation.”
“A recovery of what?”
“Is that why you’re out here instead of hunting rhinos?” He smiled at Geza. “Sorry, but you’ll be disappointed.”
“Then disappoint me. I’m growing impatient.” Geza stepped closer and jabbed the rifle silencer into the ribs of the American. “What did you recover? Where is it?”
“Two people fell out of the plane yesterday. They’ve been found. Now we’re going home.”
“More lies. It was something valuable.”
“Exactly. Two people. They’re valuable.”
Geza tilted his head to the sound of several engines. His men in the trucks had made good time.
“If you don’t want to talk now, you’ll talk back at camp. I’m taking you with me. The rest of my men are here now.”
“No, I don’t think I’m going with you.” The American smiled again—that cursed grin! “Those aren’t your men. Those are my men. Tell me, Geza, if you’re really a great hunter and killer, there must be a price on your own head, right?”
Geza spun around as he realized the sound of approaching vehicles had indeed been distorted by the deep wadi next to them. The vehicles were coming from the east! An instant later, they came into sight—four Jeeps laden with crack rangers.
“You knew they were coming!” Geza spat at the American. “You were stalling!”
“You’re right. I was. Maybe you won’t mind if I stall you a little bit longer.
Geza tore his eyes from the foreigner’s face and noticed his hand as a grenade rolled out of it. His men saw it as well. They dove for cover, scrambling over one another to get away from the coming detonation.
Before the explosion, Geza wondered if he’d lost his edge. A foreigner had gotten the jump on him. Was it possible God had helped him? He wished he would’ve continued poaching for rhinos that morning.
Annette was outraged. Titus had sent her away without him. Even worse, she’d actually gone!
“Noah, I can’t leave him like this.” Annette held her rifle, ready for action. She looked back toward the tree where she’d left Titus, fifty yards away. “I’m going back.”
She thought the man would continue down the wadi without her, but Noah set his hand on Meikles’ shoulder. The boy was surprisingly alert and energetic.
“I’ll cover you, Annette. Meikles, stay behind me.”
Annette hadn’t taken ten steps when she jumped from the grenade explosion.
“Titus!” She rushed back up the wadi.
The smoke lingered above the ravine, but she scrambled into it regardless. Men coughed from the stinging fumes, but she ran through them to the tree where she’d left Titus. She found him on his face on the ground.
“I’ll never leave a grenade with you again!” She shoved her rifle sling across her back, then hooked her arms under Titus’ armpits. “You’ll just insist on using it!”
He was gagging and blind, but he stood on his good leg long enough for Annette to kneel in front of him. She wasn’t strong enough to carry his heavy frame over her shoulders, but she guessed she could drag him a short distance out of harm’s way.
Titus submitted to her as she drew his arms over her shoulders, draping him over her back. She took a step, kicked a rifle out of a poacher’s reach, then managed another step. Her breath was labored, but the smoke was clearing now.
The gunfire behind her started sporadically, then became more steady as the poachers exchanged fire with the rangers. Once out of the smoke, and in the cover of waist-high grass, Annette eased Titus to rest on the ground. She turned to watch the battle. Its outcome would affect them. If the poachers won, Annette would have to consider a hasty escape to one of the ranger Jeeps.
Rangers crossed the wadi before the poachers had fully recovered from the grenade. Several poachers surrendered around the tree. Others fired blindly as they ran away, then dropped their rifles when they clicked on empty.
Farther away, the grass parted in thirty places where wild dogs emerged in front of the fleeing soldiers. Now unarmed, the poachers reversed and begged the rangers for protection from the dogs.
“That’s poetic,” Titus mumbled. “Poachers are about to be poached by wild animals.”
“Some of that might be my fault.” Annette said. “My first grenade kind of stirred them up.”
She knelt and touched Titus’ cheek as Noah stood guard nearby, facing the frenzy above the wadi.
“I thought you’d left me, Titus Caspertein.” She smiled as a tear fell from her eye and landed on his neck. “I even brought a tarp for your body.”
“We Casperteins don’t die that easily. God was just correcting my attitude.”
“I thought that was my job.” She laughed.
“Maybe it’s a team effort to work on me.” He started to laugh, but then held his torso an instant later. “Oh, don’t make me laugh, babe. It ain’t easy falling out of a plane.”
“Don’t think you’re going to milk this for too long. COIL has a long list of missions lined up for you.”
“Okay, okay. Just let me catch my . . .”
Annette checked his pulse, then patted his cheek.
“It ain’t easy being your girl, Titus Caspertein.”
Noah moved closer.
“Here come a couple rangers, Annette. Let them see your hands. They’re our ride back to the car.”
Annette rose to her feet and held her hands over her head. Meikles did the same. The rangers approached warily, but not aggressively, as if they’d already been informed there were friendlies present.
“How far to the nearest hospital, Noah?” Annette asked.
“I’ll borrow a plane from Singita Pamushana and fly us straight back to Harare by sundown.” The pilot eyed the sky. “Of course, it’s in God’s hands. Anything could happen. This is Africa!”
Titus had been recuperating in the States for three weeks when Corban Dowler entered the screened-off porch using forearm crutches. He sat in a wicker chair across from Titus.
“Glad to see you’re using your time wisely.” Corban leaned forward to see what passage in the Bible Titus was studying. “First Corinthians. It’s appropriate for the condition of most churches in America.”
Closing the Bible, Titus set it aside. His leg itched somewhere around the knee, deep inside the cast.
“Would you mind?” Titus gestured to a willow stick on the nearby bench. Corban handed it to him. “A few more weeks, and I’ll be ready to get back out there. I mean, for whatever you want me to do.”
“Don’t worry.” Corban chuckled. “We have other field agents to help with airdrops in other countries. No, as soon as your strength returns, I’m sending you overseas to assist Christians under fire.”
“I’ll be praying about that.” Titus picked up a laptop and tapped the screen. It came to life. “I’ve been experimenting with the Gabriels you launched while I was in Africa. The cameras and zoom lenses are phenomenal.”
“Better than space satellites,” Corban said. “No atmospheric distortion. They’re seventy thousand feet above you. With their thermal imaging capabilities, you’ll have a three dimensional view around you at all times.”
“It feels like cheating, seeing the God-view all the time. Like this.” He traced his finger across the screen, then turned it toward Corban. “Annette just pulled up in the driveway.”
“I’m glad you’re getting familiar with it, but just keep in mind that even with the view from the Gabriels, the enemies’ bullets are real. And there are other things to think about.”
“You’re still wanted all around the world. The Feds may have permitted a temporary reprieve, however secretly, but any civilized nation in the world will arrest you.”
“I thought we could use that to our advantage.”
“We will, in the right countries. But you have to have sanctuary somewhere. And there’s the matter of your family.”
“Don’t worry. They want nothing to do with me.”
“Isn’t that a problem?” Corban folded his hands. “It’s not right for a man to be estranged from his family, not when you’re all children of God.”
“They’ll never believe I’m a Christian now, not after how much I’ve hurt them. I wasn’t even there for them when they buried my mom and dad.”
“Well, God will guide you in that reconciliation. It’s not about telling them you’ve changed; it’s about showing them. And that’ll take some time. And prayer.”
“Hey, guys!” Annette walked into the porch, a soda in each hand. “Corban, you’d better not be sending him back out with those casts on him.”
“Don’t worry!” Corban chuckled. “I’m not quite finished designing the tranquilizer gun that fits up a leg cast!”
Titus accepted his soda, then he raised the can to Corban, who raised his as well. As peaceful as things had been for a few weeks, they both knew trials—as well as more tragedy—awaited them on the horizon.
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~ BONUS CHAPTER ~
Book One in The COIL Legacy
[* *~ NEXT PAGE! ~* *]
Titus Caspertein sat shoulder to shoulder and knees to back amidst six hundred Asian and African refugees on a seventy-foot boat meant to carry a maximum of forty souls. He wore a hood over his head, his Egyptian burnoose still on his back, hiding his features as best he could. There were other foreigners on board—Lebanese, Eritreans, and Syrians who sought illegal entry into Europe, even though they’d launched from Libya.
Oleg sat across the boat from Titus. The ugly, scarred man was Titus’ only backup on board the human trafficking boat—a boat of death, since it was unlikely they’d ever reach Italy so overloaded. It was these kinds of risks for others that had taught Titus the true meaning of sacrifice. With Oleg beside him, they had learned in six months what would’ve otherwise taken them six years.
The two made eye contact, then Oleg looked away. Normally light-hearted, even on missions, they had no reason for amusement on this day. Their relationship needed to remain a secret until the smugglers abandoned the immigrants to die at sea.
The boat rocked against waves, and bodies shifted awkwardly on deck. If the boat capsized, Titus doubted he’d survive the ocean unless he swam straight down to get away from the mass of humanity.
Glancing again at Oleg, he saw him share his couscous bread with men and women around him. The steamed, cracked wheat was received with thankfulness. Titus drew his own lunch from under his robe. Since he daily gave his life to others, sharing his food wasn’t a struggle.
With one hand, Titus offered couscous to the men behind and beside him, and a woman who sat against his legs in front of him. He dared not turn around to look at the armed men at the back of the boat. They’d ordered everyone to face forward. The smugglers didn’t want to be identified later, if someone happened to live long enough to be rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. Nevertheless, Titus kept one hand on the trigger under his robe.
Upon joining COIL, Titus had met with engineers and designed a new non-lethal weapon series, as well as other technology. The new non-lethal rounds could be fired from a regular firearm of the right caliber. With Corban Dowler overseeing, Titus had arranged for .22 caliber, nine-millimeter, and .308 cartridges. Thus, Titus carried a nine-millimeter handgun, customized with a twenty-round magazine and a built-in silencer.
The tranquilizer ammunition carried a heavier punch than the old NL series of pellet ammo. Each new round had a gelatin base, with a half-inch tack inside the gelatin, and was shaped like a regular bullet. On impact, the gelatin toxin flattened against the skin of the target, and the tack was thrust forward to puncture the skin. The results were a bruise and an hour of unconsciousness. Using guns and ammo that saved lives was a long way from Titus’ selfish days of gun smuggling and radioactive weapons deals.
Morning stretched into afternoon. A child cried behind him, but Titus still didn’t turn around. The single motor hummed, propelling the derelict vessel northward, probably toward a predetermined GPS coordinate. The smugglers would leave the boat soon, when they were picked up by another. It would happen before Italian authorities could apprehend the extortionists and murderers.
Some of the refugees had been searched before boarding, but Titus and Oleg had boarded early and scowled threateningly. The three smugglers, two with rifles, hadn’t bothered them. Weaker people hadn’t been as fortunate, but Titus hadn’t reacted. His cover was required to put a stop to the dead bodies washing up on the shores of Europe and Africa.
“You English?” the man on his right asked. He was black and wore a t-shirt and khaki pants. No one else seemed to be talking on board, but the weeping and churning of the sea covered their guarded words.
“Yes, I speak English.”
“I translate for tourists in Asmara.” He gestured at the woman against Titus’ knees. “My sister. This is my family now. Wife, children, all dead.”
“Famine?” Titus asked.
“Prison. Killers of Isa followers. Most of us here are believers. You follow Isa?”
Titus browsed the people around him without moving his head. He’d been with COIL for only a year, so he often came face-to-face with grave truths he’d never heard of before. A boat full of Christians, fleeing persecution? No wonder COIL had arranged for a couple operatives to shut down the dangerous smuggling ring. Corban had told him how smugglers were killing hundreds each year once the immigrants paid their fare, which was as much as fifteen hundred dollars per person. It made Titus’ own concerns about his cancer seem small in comparison.
“Yeah, I’m a follower. For one year now.”
“It is hard today.” The man bobbed his head. “Soon, Isa must return.”
“I pray so.”
Titus wasn’t sure whether he should rejoice or grieve over meeting his Eritrean brother. This man truly had no home. He would reach Italy, because Titus and Oleg would make sure the boatload did, but then what?
Plastic jugs with water were passed around. The smugglers yelled a warning in Arabic that there would be no more water until the morning, but Titus knew the smugglers had only loaded four jugs. There would be no more water at all, unless some of the immigrants had their own water, which was unlikely since those who carried anything on their person carried only their belongings.
Night fell, but Titus didn’t join his neighbors in sleep. He kept his head low, as did Oleg, hoping not to draw the smugglers’ attention.
The watch on his wrist vibrated. Hiding his arm in his lap, he pulled up his sleeve to read a text message from COIL tech Marc Densort: “Boat. ETA: 20 min.”
Titus tapped the touch-screen of the watch. It blinked to GABE, or Gabriel mode. Three stealth UAVs seventy miles overhead watched over him with high resolution cameras. Circling his finger on the screen, the view zoomed in on his location, closer and closer. His boat was a dot on a field of black sea. To the southwest, another single white pixel raced toward them.
He zoomed in on the racing pixel, larger and larger, testing the limits of the new COIL overwatch system—until he could see the speedboat approaching from Tunisia. Switching to thermal imaging, he saw two glowing signatures identifying two humans on board.
With the necessary intel gathered, he covered his watch and coughed loudly into his hand. A few yards away, Oleg lifted his head—a shadow against the dim horizon.
“Two!” Titus sneezed. “Two!”
Oleg clicked his tongue twice. Message received.
Again, they waited, listening for the faintest sound of a motor in the distance. Having known Oleg for some time, even before they were friends, Titus knew he could count on the trained agent. The man had been lethal as an Interpol officer, but now as a Christian, with the Spirit of Christ compelling him, Titus trusted Oleg with his life.
There! The speedboat motor revved and faded in and out, bouncing over the waves. Titus drew his handgun from its shoulder holster as he turned around. Leaning on his free arm, he aimed and fired three times, tranquilizing two smugglers. Oleg fired twice, taking out one more. The three men slumped to the deck as Titus jumped to his feet, nearly fell over from a thigh cramp, then stumbled through sleeping refugees to the stern where the motor hadn’t changed its pitch.
Oleg met him there as they assumed the position of the smugglers. Titus used his foot to scoot the two dropped rifles to the side of the deck. He reached down, grabbed both rifles slings, and tossed the weapons overboard.
No one on deck stirred.
“Hey,” Oleg called over the rumble of motor. “You think we’ll ever get tired of doing this?”
“For these people?” Titus shook his head and smiled. “Not a chance.”
The speedboat pulled along the starboard side. Oleg leaned over and fired five times.
“Done,” he said, and started to reload. “Two down.”
“That’s a nice boat. Are you just going to let her drift away?”
Oleg gazed after the other vessel as it dropped into the wake of the larger boat.
“I’m not jumping in.”
“You’re the one who shot them before they tied on. Use their radio to call in the Coast Guard.”
“Use your watch.”
“We’re getting father away . . .”
“I’ll have some choice words for you when I return.” Oleg stripped off his burnoose and thrust his gun into his holster. “You know I don’t like to bathe more often than you. It makes you feel inferior.”
Titus didn’t get a chance to respond before Oleg dove overboard and swam for the idling speedboat now one hundred feet off their stern. Instead, Titus prayed he remembered moments like these, not only for himself, but to share with Annette and other Christians in America. He tried to return to the States every few missions, but the demand for his expertise was high. When he could be home in New York, he cherished his days with Annette, however short they were.
COIL operatives everywhere, for the sake of Christ and His sheep, had to make sacrifices.
~ The end of Distant Contact Bonus Chapter ~
To learn more about Book One in The COIL Legacy
In Distant Boundary, Prequel for The COIL Legacy Series, D.I. Telbat takes us to a distant land where danger knows no boundaries. Now working for COIL, Agent Titus Caspertein has left the criminal underworld to carry the cross of Christ, but survival has never seemed more unlikely for this new Christian. Assumed dead after a bungled humanitarian airdrop, Titus fights for his life against hyenas, wild dogs, and isolation in the African savannah. With two broken limbs, and predators prowling for his blood, Titus relies on a young boy to keep him alive. Unless his wife, Annette, finds him before a heavily armed rhino poacher does, Titus will become a casualty of the Zimbabwe wilderness! With a Bonus Chapter from Distant Contact, Book One in The COIL Legacy, map downloads, and cover design by Streetlight Graphics, we pray you enjoy this exciting Prequel to The COIL Legacy. And discover there is truly no redemption without sacrifice.