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Authors: Edward S. Aarons

Assignment Black Gold

BOOK: Assignment Black Gold
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Chapter 1.

“Durell!”

The shout came echoing out of the blackness.

“Durell!”

Hobe Tallman, Betty’s husband, said nervously, “They’re not
sure he’s here, dear."

“Of course they know he’s here,” Betty snapped.

“Otherwise. why would they bother us?”

“ ‘Bother’ is an understatement," Hobe muttered.

There was nothing to be seen from the windows of the
bungalow. The smell of the river came in with the hot night wind, a smell
compounded of mud and sewage and rotting vegetation, and a whiff from the stack
of the WDT diesel working a mile or more away up the beach in the LMO Company’s
storage yard. Durell had snapped off the lights in the bungalow with the first
rasping, stuttering shots.

Something splashed in the river. Then the night was silent.
He stood beside the window near the door to the veranda, a tall, dark outline
in the blackness. Dim light from the African night sky made a pale halo of
Betty Tallman's mop of blond hair. She had obviously let herself go pretty
badly these past two months. He knew little about her except that her Gulf
accent matched Hobe Tallman’s Texas drawl. She had been a bar girl in
Galveston, a nightclub singer in Houston, and finally a secretary in the
offices of the Lubinda Marine Oil building in New Orleans when Hobe had married
her. Hobe was pushing forty and a little scared about it. Betty was only in her
mid-twenties. Whatever urges had brought them together had long since been
dissipated by the African heat.

“Durell!"

The shout came for the third time from the hot darkness near
the river. Durell moved silently toward the open window. He had a snub-barreled
.38 S&W in his hand, comfortable to grip, There had been no comment from
the Tallmans when they saw he was armed. In Lubinda, these days. most men
carried weapons or were never far front reaching for one. He flattened
his back against the wall near the window and called back.

“Yes?”

“Senhor Samuel Durell?”


Yo
.”

There was distant laughter. “Come out, senhor. We have no
quarrel with Mr. Tallman or his wife. We wish to talk to you."

“Go ahead and talk.”

“You come out, and we let the Tallmans go.”

“Who are you?”

“We will introduce ourselves properly face to face. You have
fifteen seconds to come out.”

The voice was confident, with the Lubindan accent that
was the legacy of Portuguese colonials and Catholic mission schools. It was
deep, from a thick chest. Even amused. Durell looked at Betty Tallman,
attracted by the sound of her hands searching for something in the dark living
room of the bungalow. She had her handbag out, and a cigarette in her mouth,
and was about to snap a lighter into flame. He jumped, slapped the small gold
lighter from her fingers, then more gently took the cigarette from
between her lips.

“You can get your head blown off, Betty, making a target out
of yourself like that.”

“Oh, shit. They don‘t want us. They want you, Durell. Why
don’t you go out there, the way they want, and make them leave us alone? Ho-be
and I have always been friends with them."

Hobe said gently, “Betty, please. Durell knows what’s
right.”

“Why should we be killed because of hint?”

“Betty. . .”

“You’re a worm, Hobe. Nothing but a creepy little

worm. Throw hint out. Throw him to the wolves, ha
ha
. I need a drink.”

“You’re just tired, Betty—”

“You’re damned right I’m tired. Sick and tired of this
place, of oil, of your men tramping in and out, making passes at me, of
everything going down the drain in this heat and muck.”

Durell turned in the shadows to Hobe Tallman’s short, stocky
figure. “Who are those people out there?"

Hobe sounded helpless. “Apgaks. Local terrorists. Gangsters.
Independents."

There was a sudden burst of gunfire from the bush and
the
jungled
riverbanks. Automatic weapons. They
sounded to Durell like Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles. More firing
came from behind the bungalow. Something flickered, and in a low, looping
arc of sputtering flame came out of the darkness toward the side of the house.
There was a sudden explosion, a burst of fire, the quick conflagration of a
gasoline bomb.

“Oh, Jesus, my car!" Betty shouted.

Her Mercedes was abruptly outlined in flames. It had been
their only transportation back to the coast.

It was about fifty yards from the bungalow to the
banks of the Lubinda River. At this point, five miles from the town on
the West African coast of the little independent enclave of Lubinda, the river
was a couple of miles wide, really an estuary or bay, threaded by channels,
islands, mud banks, and scrub brush, with an occasional coconut palm rising
above the flat, miasmic delta. it was relatively familiar country to
Durell. He had been born and raised a Cajun in the Louisiana delta parishes, at
Bayou Peche

Rouge. Yet there were differences. There was something
untamed, savage, and bloody in this country so recently proclaimed an
independent republic.

A rifle slammed from the big kitchen in the rear of
the bungalow; slammed again and a third time. Durell waved a hand downward at
Hobe, who took his place at the window with his own rifle, and moved
toward Betty’s rigid figure in the shadows. He could smell the heavy
perfume she used. She wore only a halter and a pair of pink cotton shorts, and
an animal magnetism emanated from her tall, rich body. She had found herself a
bottle in the cabinet against the far wall and was pouring herself a drink. Her
pretty face, angry and frightened, turned toward him.

“They’re going to rape me, you know that?" she said
tightly. “Then they‘ll kill us all.”

“They‘re not in here yet.”

“They’ve cut the telephone wire, right? We can’t raise the
Lubinda once on the radio—the bastards there are all asleep since we shut down
the Lady. Did you hear what the Apgaks did to the Jacksons last month?”

“No.” He wanted to go past her, but she deliberately moved
in his way.

“George was a derrickman working the double board He came
back from the rig on the crew boat after his tour”— she pronounced it
“tower”—“and went home to his bungalow up the river. They were waiting for him.
They killed him, cut oil his head and his testicles, gang-raped Milly, killed
their two little girls. Milly was flown home a week ago last Tuesday. A
raving idiot.”

“Get out of my way, Betty."

“Go on out to them,” the woman urged. Her eyes were
desperate. “You’re the only one they want. We’ve always gotten along fine
with everybody. Get out, and they’ll leave Hobe and me alone.”

“Not yet.”

“They’ve burned my car. Next they’ll burn the house. Then
we'll all have to run out, rind they’ll have us. Damn you, Durell, you’ve
brought us nothing but trouble—”

He pushed past her, went through to the kitchen where
Tallman’s servant, a brown-skinned Lubindan named Henrique, turned nervously
from the window with his rifle.

“Sir, they tried to come in from the bush out there.”

Henrique's gray head seemed palsied.

“Did you get anyone?”

“I’m not a very good shot, sir.” The man paused.

“What do they want from you, sir?”

“I don‘t know.”

“How do they even know you came here to visit?”

"I don’t know that, either,” Durell said.

“They say you are an American spy,
senhor
.”

“Who says that?”

Henrique shrugged. “The people. Everybody.”

Durell looked through the shattered glass of one of the
kitchen windows. The glare of light from the burning Mercedes was dying down. A
wall of bamboo marked the end of the neatly clipped colonial lawn and rose
beds. Through the smells of the burning car came the faint, evanescent scent of
night-blooming jasmine.

“How many do you figure are out there?” he asked.

Henrique’s brown face was plainly frightened. “Thirty or
forty, sir.”

Durell considered the estimate and guessed the terrorists
numbered closer to a score. It was still a sufficient number to overwhelm
them.

He decided he would have to respond to their calls.

 

Chapter 2.

He had flown to Lisbon via Pan Am from Washington, then
taken a TAP flight via
llha
Sao Tomé to Angola,
landing at the President
Craveiro
Lopes airport, a
couple of miles outside of Luanda. While waiting to have his visa checked, he
listened to the Portuguese and Bantu spoken around him, then went to a branch
of the
Banco
Beuguela
and
changed his dollars into the escudos of the Overseas Province of Angola. With
enough
angolars
in his pocket, he changed those into
rands
at a discounted rate for Southwest Africa. which had
been newly renamed Namibia.

He took time to make a call to 75021-2, the Centro de
Associaco
de Angola, on Largo
Diogo
C50
7. The Portuguese authorities were friendly and
courteous, but they refused flatly to give him t travel permit to Lubinda. The
future of the new republic to the south. along the West African coast, was
still insecure, they said; there was fighting along the frontier and on
the perimeter of the Kahara Desert on the coast near Namibia. Many of the
European residents were fleeing—some being pulled out by the companies they
represented. others simply packing up and taking the first plane or ship
available. The Apgaks were everywhere, he was advised. “Very dangerous,
senhor
. There is no business there for
you. We cannot permit you to expose yourself to such dangers.” The Portuguese
were polite but firm.

It took twenty-four hours for Durell to arrange passage with
a bush pilot who had formerly flown for
Suidwes
Lugdiens
. Southwest Airlines in South Africa. He got a
charter to Lubinda‘s small capital at a cost of
500R
,
which took almost seven hundred of his American dollars.

While he waited, he walked around Luanda, the “City of
Bougainvilleas
." It had been built in tiers on top of
its origins as a fort. The
assimilado
system. which forbade all color bars, seemed to
work well enough. The persistent cancer of guerrilla movements was not evident
here. There were open air cafés, old houses with bright tiles, and in the new
quarter, vivid Portuguese skyscrapers along broad boulevards and squares. The
lower, Or Old Town, was a maze of cobbled streets and tiny nooks and corners.
There were shops selling jaspers and agates from the Kahara and Namib desert
shores, the old San Miguel fort on the waterfront, and chapels dating back to
1644. Durell felt no urgency. Eventually, the South African bush pilot showed
up, shared a drink of fiery Cape brandy with him at a bright sidewalk cafe, and
they took off for Lubinda.

Now, on the evening of the same day of his arrival in the
tiny, independent enclave, he was trapped with the Tallmans, on the first
move he had made.

 

In Durell’s business, anonymity was a key asset to
accomplishing the jobs he had to do. He avoided encounters with local police
and used whatever cover had been assigned him back in Washington. He trusted no
one. As a chief field agent for K Section, that anonymous troubleshooting
branch of the Central Intelligence Agency, he had long ago learned to live with
caution. It was one way to stay alive a bit longer. His dossiers were
registered in the intelligence files of the British
M16
.
the French
Sureté
, the German DNB, the KGB in Moscow,
the Black House in Peking. He was familiar with all the dark and dangerous
corners of his lonely world, and he treated these dangers with respect. His
survival factor had gone below the minimum in the computer personnel analyzers
at No. 20 Annapolis Street, K Section’s headquarters in DC. He took all the
precautions he could, whether in a
Malayasian
jungle
or a London hotel. He never turned a corner without a thought for what might be
waiting for him. And he had survived where others had gone down from a moment’s
lack of attention, a careless gesture, or a trust misplaced.

Durell was a tall man, with thick black hair touched with
gray at the temples. He had a heavy musculature that made the swift grace of
his movements a surprise. He could kill. and had done so, in a dozen different
ways, with any assortment of weapons or with his hands. He spoke a dozen
different languages, a score of minor dialects, from Arabic and Swahili to
Japanese. He regularly took refresher courses at the Maryland “Farm” operated
by K Section, but he usually disdained the tricky gadgets dreamed up by the
gimmick boys in the basement lab of the
graystone
building at No. 20 Annapolis Street. in line with his habitual sense of
caution, he preferred to work alone.

He knew he could never go back to the normal world of a
commuter’s job and a suburban home. He had been in the business too long for
that. He did not think he could adapt to life on the outside. Although he was
devoted to what he thought was necessary to be done, he did not consider
himself a patriot. engaged in a dark and deadly war for the peace and security
of the free world. Durell’s life was one lived on the knife-edge of terror and
danger. of competition from those equally intent on reaping the intelligence
data that had become one of the most valued commodities On this troubled globe.

He stood still, listening to the sudden silence from outside
the besieged bungalow.

 

There was only a low crackling of flames from the
burning Mercedes parked alongside the primitive road between the house and the
riverbank. Durell tapped encouragement on Henrique’s bowed shoulders and
watched the way the man held his rifle, then left the bungalow kitchen. Cicadas
sang in the darkness Outside. There was no wind. He did not return directly to
the living room, but turned right, into Hobe Tallman’s study. Hobe, as general
manager for Lubinda Marine Oil, had an office here as well as in the town. The
red light from the fire-bombed car gave him shadowed glimpses of a large,
neat desk, cleared of papers, several large geological charts and cross-sectional
surveys of the bottom offshore, marked with red and green and blue crosses from
distances of five to twenty miles out. Durell considered the shale, sand,
and rock formations patterned in color. There was a bulletin board listing
crews’ names of
floormen
, roughnecks,
tool-pushers, drillers, and motormen, a sheaf of porosity logs and core
analyses determining permeability and fluid content below the ocean
bottom. There were invoices for casing pipe and wrenches, air conditioners and
quebracho
from
South America, the tannin extract used as a thinning agent for drilling mud.
There was even a roster for the D.&D. Club—the Derrick and Desk Club for
women employees, mostly the wives of the various drilling crews.

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