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Chapter One - Opportunistic Predators

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As the bush plane dropped in altitude, the people on the road looked like a patchwork quilt of colorful smudges on its light brown surface, as it snaked through a clearing and then back into the rain forest. His window open, Billy shouted over the engine noise to the pilot. Billy’s camera took him to all corners of the world. He motioned down with his thumb then his forefinger. What a rush. I love the first days of a shoot. The pilot gave him a thumbs-up and nosed the plane towards the colorful roadway. Looking through the long-distance lens that he poked out the plane’s open window, Billy blinked and twitched away from the view-finder. He looked at the pilot and pointed at the road.
“No one’s moving,” he shouted, mouthing the syllables.
The pilot considered his instruments and shrugged his shoulders before nudging the joystick upward.
“I told you, you were crazy to come here,” he shouted over the din.
Billy got a series of snaps on automatic. Ebola’s not supposed to kill like that. The last frame included a billboard announcing Kenema City as the gateway to the rainforest. More like the gateway to Hell. The other pictures shocked even war-hardened Billy’s soul as he eyed them on the LCD. During the rest of the short flight over the canopy of the jungle, he riffled through the grizzly slideshow, shuffling the deck back and forth with skillful flips of his supple fingers. Such a waste. All those families destroyed. Not long after, the bush plane circled over another clearing as the images of death burned into Billy’s brain before the pilot permitted a gentle bounce down onto a stretch of recently cleared runway. Charred stumps, evidence of slash and burn littered the edges of the open space.
Preoccupied by the macabre scene on the back way into the outskirts of Kenema City, Billy considered what he had to do: collect blood samples and get pictures. Judging by the extent and the dispersal of the corpses, it had to be a weapon. Looks like it burned through those people. Way too fast even for a bleeder like Ebola.
His job as a National Geographic stringer and syndicated war photographer masked his real employer. Billy worked in an ultra-secret unit of the Mossad, peopled by gentiles - all outcasts in their own way, all with unique skill sets.
“New strip. How’d you find it?”
Billy turned to look at the pilot. The pilot spun his plane back in the direction he landed and came to a stop at a 45 degree angle across the runway.
“You paid to get to Kenema City. The city’s about 5 kilometers down that way. Now, get the fuck out, man,” said the pilot as he held the brake and kept his hand on the accelerator. “No gas up for me here. You wanna die. That’s your business.”
“Drug transport?”
“Nope. Diamond smuggling. It’s the only business working now. Even a plague doesn’t stop those bastards. Smuggler's airport. Judging by the look of things, only been up and running for a few days.”
“Show me exactly where I am on the map,” said Billy as he held down the plane’s accelerator with his knee and squeezed the pilot’s throat with the other.
“Easy cowboy. Look out there. Those guys’ll tell you anything you need to know.”
Billy looked out the window over his shoulder, easing up on the pilot’s throat. Two plumes of yellowish dust approached behind dirt bikes. As they got closer, Billy made out the shape of Kalashnikovs strapped over their chests. Just what I fucking need.
“Your buddies?”
“They’s nobody’s buddies, my friend. You said, just get me there. Now let me get out of here. I wanna meet those assholes even less than you. I got you here. That was the deal.”
Distracted for an instant, Billy played for time and popped up the accelerator so the plane sped back up the runway pitching dust at the bikes and forcing them to stop and wait. Meanwhile the pilot reached below his seat with a free hand and pulled out a vintage automatic, thumbed off the safety and pointed it at Billy, who was eyeing him in the reflection on the window. The plane came to a halt. Billy grabbed the automatic with his left hand and jabbed the pilot in the solar plexus. Billy turned the relic over in his hand.
“My dad had one of these. They’re from Europe. Everyone kept them when they demobilized.”
Billy grabbed his large duffel bag, slung a camera holder over his other shoulder, adjusted his bush hat and dropped onto the ground. The single-prop plane had whirled around after Billy leaped out. He turned his head away from the dust wash of the prop and blocked his eyes with a free hand as the pilot sped back up the dirt runway. For an instant, there was no sound, only motor, then the cacophony of the jungle started up again filling the vacuum left after the plane’’s acceleration disappeared. Billy looked around. As if on key, the sound of the swooshing wings followed by the trumpeting calls of Yellow-backed Hornbills turned Billy’s eyes towards them. He picked up the long lens camera around his neck, steadied his aim with a sharp intake of breath before snapping a double tap of the birds –– old habits die hard. You can take Billy out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of Billy. Love that smell. The tropics always rejuvenated Billy and that day was no different than any other time he arrived in some backwater of the world. A smile filled his face.

Chapter One - Opportunistic Predators

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The Moa river curved through the rainforest like a black artery piercing a dark heart. A drenching heat slithered its way into the bush plane’s cabin. Billy’s camera took him to all corners of the world. Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, he set his Samsung’s shutter speed to fast while the bush plane dropped in altitude. The professional in him took care not to rest the lens on any part of the plane and popped it out the small window rigged to stay fully open. In his viewfinder, people on the road below looked like a hodgepodge of colorful smudges on its light brown surface as it snaked through a clearing and then back into the rainforest. Billy shouted over the engine noise to the pilot. He motioned down first with his thumb then his forefinger. An adrenalin rush excited him. Billy’s enthusiasm for the task at hand was about to be shattered. The pilot gave him a thumbs-up and nosed the plane towards the scenic roadway. Bending over to look through the long-distance lens, Billy blinked and flinched away from the viewfinder. He looked at the pilot and pointed at the road.
“No one’s moving,” Billy shouted, mouthing the syllables.
The pilot considered his instruments and shrugged his shoulders before nudging the joystick upward.
“I told you, you were crazy to come here,” he shouted over the din.
Billy got a series of snaps on automatic. He could feel the tension creeping into his stomach the way it always did when his lens revealed what men spawned in times of war. Feigned indifference masked his true feelings behind an affable smirk. People who mistook Billy’s expression for gullibility lived to regret their hasty assessment. What he saw on the ground contradicted his years in the military. He took another set of stills, including one of a billboard announcing Kenema City as The Gateway to the Rainforest. More like the gateway to Hell, thought Billy. Countless corpses lay in awkward positions on the roadway. From his experience collecting blood samples from the victims of other hemorrhagic fevers, Billy knew that Ebola didn’t kill that fast. Only a weaponized fever could burn through people like that. The death and destruction sickened one part of Billy, but it gave him resolve. Though using a virus as a weapon disturbed his humanity, Billy knew the Iranians would soon have ‘the bomb’ and the means to obliterate Israel. His rogue Mossad handler, Sam, was right about the message weaponized Ebola would deliver to Israel’s enemies.
During the rest of the short flight over the canopy of the jungle, he riffled through the macabre slideshow. Even crossing carpet-bombed villages in Cambodia in the 70s failed to prepare him for the ruinous damage he had just witnessed. The bush plane circled over another clearing before the pilot dropped down and permitted a gentle bounce onto a stretch of poorly prepared runway. Charred stumps, evidence of slash and burn, littered the edges of the landing space.
The scene on the roadway into the outskirts of Kenema City had locked Billy into planning mode. He considered what he had to do: collect blood samples and get pictures. How did Sam get wind of this way out here?
Billy’s reputation as a syndicated stringer and war photographer masked his real employer. He worked in an ultra-secret, off-the-grid unit of the Mossad, peopled by gentiles - all outcasts in their own way, all with unique skill sets. Billy turned to look at the pilot. He spun his plane back in the direction he landed and came to a stop at a 45 degree angle across the runway.
“New strip. How’d you find it?” said Billy.
“You paid to get to Kenema City. The city’s about 5 miles down that way. Now, get the fuck out, man,” said the pilot.
The pilot held the brake down and kept his hand on the accelerator. Billy eyed the man’s agitation and felt his readiness to leave.
“No gas up for me here. You wanna die. That’s your business,” the pilot added.
“Drug transport?” said Billy.
“Diamond smuggling. It’s the only business working now. Even a plague doesn’t stop those bastards. Judging by the look of things, only been up and running for a few days,” said the pilot.
He let up a bit on the brake causing the plane to jump in place before it stabilized.
“Show me exactly where I am on the map,” said Billy.
A sullen look was the pilot’s reply.
Billy took control. He held down the plane’s accelerator with his knee and drew blood from the pilot’s throat with a ceramic spike that snapped out of its holder under his wrist. The pilot winced but managed a nod in the direction they had landed.
“Trouble. There,” said the pilot.
Billy looked over his shoulder. Sure enough, two plumes of yellowish dust approached from down the runway. As they got closer, Billy made out the shape of Kalashnikovs strapped over their chests. Just what I fucking need, he thought.
“Those guys’ll tell you anything you need to know,” said the pilot.
The pilot didn’t move his head because Billy held him at knife point.
“Your buddies?” said Billy.
“‘They’s’ nobody’s buddies, my friend. You said, just get me there. Now le’me get out of here. You gotta meet those assholes, not me. I got you here. That was the deal. And don’t forget I can get you out of here, too.”
Billy played for time. He released his knee from the accelerator.
“Point the plane back up the runway and move off a bit, but no funny stuff,” he said.
The pilot popped up the accelerator so the plane sped back up the runway pitching dust in the prop wash at the bikes and forcing them to stop and wait. Billy kept the blade on the pilot’s neck but divided his attention. The pilot seized his chance and reached below his seat with a free hand. He pulled out a vintage automatic, thumbed off the safety and pointed it at Billy, who was eying him in the reflection on the window. Billy snapped into action. As the plane came to a halt, he grabbed the pistol with his left hand and jabbed the pilot in the solar plexus with his thumb. The pilot gagged, fell forward and let the pistol fall into Billy’s hand. Billy turned the weapon over and snapped the blade back into its wrist-worn holder. The pilot rubbed his neck.
“You crazy, man. I did what you wanted. Now, let me get out of here.”
“This relic’s from the second war. My dad kept his when he demobilized,” said Billy.
“Those guys got itchy trigger fingers, man. Out.”
“ A deal’s, a deal. I’ll just hang on to this, though, if you don’t mind,” said Billy.
Billy grabbed his large duffel bag from under the back of his seat, slung a camera holder over his other shoulder, adjusted his bush hat and dropped onto the ground. The single-prop plane had whirled around after Billy leaped out. He turned his head away from the dust wash of the prop and blocked his eyes with a free hand as the pilot sped back up the dirt runway. For an instant, there was only the sound of the motor, but then the cacophony of the jungle started up again filling the vacuum left after the plane disappeared. Billy looked around. As if on cue, the sound of swooshing wings followed by the trumpeting calls of yellow-billed hornbills caught Billy’s attention. He picked up the long lens camera around his neck, steadied his aim with a sharp intake of breath before snapping a double tap of the birds –– old sniper-training habits die hard. The smell of the tropics, monkey scat, wet leaves and an indescribable freshness had always rejuvenated Billy and that day was no different than any other time he arrived in some backwater of the world. A sense of purpose put a quirky smile on his face.

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