Dick Fades the Albino by Richard Avery - HTML preview
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Dick Fades the Albino
A Dick Avery Adventure Story
Puns and other wordplay can lighten an otherwise sad story. That’s the case here. A little levity was sometimes necessary to tell a story that was decidedly grim—perhaps just black humor on the Dark Continent. Liberia was on a downward trajectory and had little chance of turning itself around. Hope and confidence were in short supply like everything else in the beleaguered country.
The entire population was suffering greatly and the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was largely helpless in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Rampant corruption, indifference and crushing poverty all conspired against breaking the death spiral. That’s because a long, bloody civil war had drained the nation’s resources and spirits. Now a human monster threatened her fragile regime and its democratic institutions. When it rained, it poured, especially in Liberia’s wettest of rainy seasons.
There was only one potential bright spot on an otherwise bleak horizon—oil and natural gas. Huge fields had been discovered off the country’s coast and in its territorial waters. The big energy companies were already licking their lips and calculating their outrageous profits. By the way, the prospective was good for a gusher. Unfortunately, Liberia was ripe for the picking and plucking given its weakened condition. The greedy vultures were already circling, flapping their wings and beating their puffed-up chests in anticipation of good things to come.
The monster had other plans for the nation that included his taking power by force, hook or crook or whatever means necessary. His appetite for money and absolute power was insatiable. He was a ravenous glutton whose hunger for more could never be sated. Equally alarming was his sociopathic bent for ruthless and reckless behavior. The unholy union of aberrant desires and brutally coldblooded intentions spelled disaster for the frail country. Whatever the costs, he planned to topple Ellen Sirleaf and install himself as the next president of the fledgling republic.
My role in the drama was all too clear: bell the cat to prevent a coup and civil war. My employer of second-to-last resort, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, had ordered me to catch a monster while it was distracted or napping. I thought employment at a McDonald’s was looking better and better by the moment. “How about some fries with the burger, ma’am?”
Please join me as I travel the world on behalf of the Diplomatic Security Service and uphold truth, justice and the American way!
Very truly yours,
Richard Avery (DSS Special Agent, Ret.)
P.S. May God bless America!
“Phil, you need to remember that Liberians
are wicked and vicious people.”
—Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President, Republic of Liberia
The fasten seat belt sign flashed-on and the pilot announced we were approaching Roberts Field and to prepare for landing. The mostly black passengers and the few white expats onboard dutifully complied with the instruction. I suspected a number of people were returning home from the Diaspora after many years of self-imposed exile. Liberia was not a tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. A positive, upbeat imagination and strong dose of hopefulness were necessary to emotionally cope with the current conditions in the desperately poor country. That was because Liberia was down on its prospects and almost down for the count. Its collective sanity and tenuous stability were quickly slipping away. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp the dire conditions and consequences of the situation were simply whistling past the graveyard. I quickly stifled a yawn and an uncontrollable urge to purse my lips.
As the plane turned on final approach, I saw it was raining heavily, not surprising for the wet season that still had two months to go before the weather turned sunny and brutally hot. Regardless, it was always hot and humid here with the only relief offered by the intermittent breezes off the Atlantic. Monrovia had the distinction of being the rainiest capital in the world. I didn’t bother to verify the claim because I didn’t particularly care and forgotten to bring my hydrometer. In my particular profession, wet-work was always a possibility and an occupational hazard. Thank God I’d remembered to bring an umbrella and my rubbers!
The 30 mile trip from the airport to the city reminded me of my previous visit in 1992 when I served as acting Regional Security Officer at the U.S. embassy. Between then and now, the country had undergone 14 on-and-off again years of devastating civil war. The entire country was now in shambles and desperately trying to reestablish basic infrastructures. No commercial electricity existed in the country and other basic services and products were nonexistent, scarce or prohibitively expensive. Liberia was a basket case without even the pretense of a basket—wicker and rattan were in short supply too.
The United Nations, wealthy donor nations and non-governmental organizations were doing their best to prop up the newly-elected, democratic government and provide for the basic health and food needs of the people. In most respects, it was an uphill battle with Sisyphus leading the charge. Bureaucratic inefficiency and endemic corruption within the Liberian government conspired to keep the boulder from making much progress. The country’s viability and very future were in serious question. Otherwise, things were just hunky-dory.
Jersey Briggs, my former colleague and erstwhile friend, had convinced me to come out of retirement and take the assignment. It didn’t take much convincing since I was bored and broke. His offer gave me the opportunity to overcome both desultory conditions. I readily agreed before hearing the details and considering the dangers involved in accepting the job. I could be especially impetuous when money was involved. Patriotism came in a distant second but still served as a plausible excuse for my desperate, dissolute and pecuniary desires.
Jersey was the Director of Investigations for the U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service; the same position I held until I retired some years ago. We’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship for years. That meant I didn’t fully trust the fucking bastard! He had suckered me into dangerous situations before and had no compunctions about doing so again. Hiring me was a no-lose situation for him. If I succeeded in solving a tough case, he’d garner most of the kudos. If I failed, he would tell his superiors that old Avery had lost his touch and should be removed from the reserve rolls for future assignments; put out to pasture like a broken-down dray horse. In any case, DS would effectively distance itself from any political pratfalls by not assigning an active duty agent, just a retread who had obviously outlived his usefulness to the outfit.
Sometimes loyalty and camaraderie were also in short supply among those who protect and serve.
My notional assignment was to conduct an in-depth review of DS’s antiterrorism assistance program in Liberia. It was a suitable cover under the circumstances and one that would hold up under scrutiny by the local security services, the U.S. embassy and the DS advisory team providing assistance to the Liberian Special Security Service. I only prayed my beard stayed intact long enough to get the job done so I could get the hell out of here. If it didn’t stay put, I risked much more than losing face.
The Special Security Service was the Liberian government organization charged with protecting the president, senior officials designated by the president and visiting foreign dignitaries. Its mandate largely mirrored that of the U.S. Secret Service but that was where the comparison ended. The SSS or Triple S, as commonly called, had been used by previous regimes as an instrument of terror and repression, largely a goon squad that reputedly had murdered, raped and kidnapped opponents and ordinary citizens alike without concern or consequence.
During its history, some of its agents had been characterized as sadists who engaged in gruesome acts of torture and cannibalism during the country’s darkest hours. Some of these men, the worst of the worst, were assigned to the SSS Special Antiterrorism Unit. Now the entire organization was being restructured, equipped and trained by the U.S. government—all in the name of fighting international terrorism.
An important change occurred with a democratically elected president in 2006—Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She was the first woman elected to such high office in Africa and represented a bright ray of hope for the people of the Godforsaken country. One of her first acts was to request personal protection from the U.S. government. She didn’t trust the Triple S since many of its senior leaders opposed her candidacy and reportedly were involved in thwarting her election to office. She’d also been hunted down by the SSS during the war years and had never forgiven them for that little episode in her life that almost caused her execution at its hands.
Moreover, there was the issue of the Triple S reputation in Liberia. She needed time to purge the organization of those members she considered undesirable or disloyal. President Sirleaf had even gone so far as to recommend changing the organization’s name to the Executive Protection Service to remove the stigma that still haunted the peoples’ minds and memories. That and other positive changes affecting the SSS were pending passage in the Liberian congress. She was one bound-and-determined lady who had publically vowed to professionalize the SSS, even if it killed her. The fellow members of her Unity Party constantly worried about the same outcome.
President Sirleaf had initially requested the U.S. Secret Service to provide agents for her security detail. The Service turned down the request noting it was outside the scope of its duties and authorities. She next asked the State Department to send Diplomatic Security Service agents to provide similar protection.
The department declined but offered to fund a modest-sized security detail comprised of American contractor personnel for a limited period of time for her personal protection—just enough time for her to purge the senior leadership of the Triple S. The department also agreed to field an antiterrorism assistance team to Liberia to mentor and advise the reconstituted Triple S in achieving an acceptable level of professionalism and proficiency. The team would work in Liberia until the Triple S reached that magic level of competency or antiterrorism funds dried up or a new U.S. administration decided otherwise. The protection team had departed many months ago, but the advisors might be on the ground for years to come. Respect for basic human rights could be a difficult concept to accept for an organization that for many years had a freehand and sometimes itchy trigger finger.
The undesirables in the organization were quickly replaced by the president’s trusted friends. Unfortunately, personal loyalty sometimes took precedence over experience. That had serious repercussions regarding the Triple S achieving a level of viability consistent with the advisors’ mission, U.S. government objectives and the president’s own desire. A five person team, comprised of retired DS special agents, now tried its best to coach, cajole, mentor, monitor and help transform the organization into a professional security service. The going was tough and progress was measured in tentative baby steps rather than leaps and bounds.
Regardless, the one thing the advisors never ever did was to protect, or suggest that it protected, the president or anyone else in Liberia. There was simply too much potential political fallout to assert such a claim. So, the Americans were merely advisors and nothing more. The Triple S maintained sole responsibility for the president’s safety and most certainly not the U.S. government. It was an important distinction for political correctness and PR spin alone. God forbid something should happen to her on America’s watch!
While the advisors roles and responsibilities were clear, at least in their minds, the State Department and the administration’s decision to field an advisory team and fund an antiterrorism program in Liberia was less so. That was because there wasn’t any terrorism as defined by the U.S. government or serious threat of terrorism in the country. The threat from what were called former combatants was of some potential concern since most possessed combat experience and access to arms that hadn’t been recovered by the government at the end of the fighting. However, the fear had not materialized although crime was another matter altogether. That was because former combatants had been responsible for much of the violent crime throughout the country. That distinctly antisocial disease remained the most pressing public safety issue of the day.
If there was no credible terrorist threat to Sirleaf or the government of Liberia, why would the U.S. government provide antiterrorism assistance? I wondered.
The answers I believed could be found in the unique and special relationship between Liberia and the United States. That and the fact that Liberia had just elected a democratic government headed by a very capable woman no less, a first for Africa. Perhaps there was another, less charitable motive too.
Liberia was founded by the abolitionist movement for freed American slaves in the early part of the 19th century. Many former slaves and freeborn blacks migrated to the country over the next century or so as part of the back-to-Africa movement. It didn’t take long for the newcomers to subdue the indigenous tribes and dominate political life in the country. The Americo-Liberians as they were called had little in common with their backward, native brethren. Their social customs and cultural perspectives had been forged in the United States. As a result, many American icons and institutions were adopted by Liberia. For example, the U.S. dollar served as official currency and its flag closely resembled that of the United States. It was the only foreign nation that had named its capital after a U.S. president—James Monroe. Even its executive, judicial and legislative branches of government were patterned after those in America.
Many other examples of Americanisms and Americana existed throughout its culture and institutions. The special bond between the two countries had not been broken for almost two hundred years. Perhaps it was because the slavish nature of the White Man’s guilt tended to die hard in the lopsided relationship. Perhaps it was something altogether different nowadays.
Ellen Sirleaf had been educated and worked in the United States for many years and was a friend of President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush had visited Liberia twice during a two year period while in office, both short day trips. For a sitting president to visit a backwater, West African state was largely unprecedented. Visiting it twice was considered highly suspect by many of the pundits and politicos who tracked such things. Eh, what’s up Doc?
Liberia held no geopolitical or other interest for America, except one—potentially huge, off-shore oil and gas fields that hadn’t yet been tapped and exploited. These large reserves, now owned by former American slaves, offered temporary relief to energy hungry Americans. The exploration and mapping of the fields had been completed and preparations were underway to begin drilling. Coastal, West African countries from Nigeria to Angola had already sprouted offshore oil rigs. It was now Liberia’s turn to cash-in on its natural resources in a big way. It was the country’s sole hope for economic salvation. The avaricious players on both sides of the Atlantic were gushing about the bright prospects on the horizon.
The decision to aid the new Liberian president with her personal safety concerns was a laudable and predictable act. It was another example of democracy building in action and a shrewd business move that would likely result in more obscene profits for the big U.S. oil companies. The United States most definitely wanted President Sirleaf to have a long and successful stay in office. So much so that it had already urged her to run for a second term. She would be seventy-two if that should happen. Her continued tenure was good for Liberia and good for America: a win-win situation for both countries. The Liberians desperately needed oil money to rebuild the country and the United States desperately needed the energy. Friendly, bilateral relations didn’t get any more symbiotic or cynical than that—just business as usual and another foreign policy success. Chalk one up for the good guys!
Speaking of being bushed, I was dead tired from my flights and the six hour wait between the Brussels to Monrovia leg of the trip. My embassy driver dropped me at Sea Suites where the embassy leased several furnished apartments for temporary assignees like me. I was too exhausted to even unpack. Instead, I chain-smoked several cigarettes and listened to the rain pound on the corrugated metal roof of my apartment. The pummeling sounds, Mother Nature’s soothing white noise, had a relaxing effect and I slept soundly for the next twelve hours.
Sometimes those who protect and serve were so wet behind the ears they didn’t anticipate the dangers intimidating or inundating them in Liberia’s dampest season.
My first appointment of the day was at the U.S. embassy located in the Mamba Point section of the city. The driver deftly avoided the numerous potholes, pedestrians and other vehicles we encountered along the route. The intervening fourteen years hadn’t improved the road or living conditions and things were actually much worse than during my previous visit. And they certainly weren’t great back then. The lengthy civil war had set the country’s progress back at least a generation. Fortunately, there were no stoplights to contend with because there was no municipal electricity. Like the chaotic, dizzying streets, Liberia was stuck in a seemingly bottomless vortex in which only the strongest and most aggressive would likely survive.
The entire passing scene was thoroughly depressing and seemingly hopeless. The government was overwhelmed by the severe economic and humanitarian situation and could only beg for help from outside sources. However, largesse only came in small packages these days. Countries in the region couldn’t help much because they had economic problems of their own. So, the new president undertook missions to the capitals of the richer nations of the world to appeal for money and equipment needed to rebuild her nation. Washington, DC, Beijing, Berlin, Tripoli and London were favorite stops on the frequent itineraries abroad. Hat-in-hand diplomacy was now the order of the day. But getting the country back on its feet again would be extremely difficult and problematic at best. Truthfully, it needed a damn miracle or very rich uncle to survive. Maybe some oil to grease the wheels of progress would help too.
I wore my best leisure suit to the meeting—the crimson one with faux pearl buttons. My black wingtips were shined to a high gloss. I stored my pack of Marlboros and Bic lighter in my pants pocket so as not to create an unseemly bulge in my jacket. I wanted to appear presentable and professional to my colleagues. I thought I looked particularly spiffy as we said in certain, closeted circles. Perception and self-delusion, rather than substance, counted for a lot in the State Department.
Following the perfunctory security screening, I was promptly ushered into Jackson Smyth’s office located on the ground floor of the chancery. I immediately shook hands with him and then turned to Phil Jensen who was sitting on a small sofa next to the window. Jackson was the embassy Regional Security Officer or Security Attaché. Like his counterparts around the world, he was a DS Special Agent who simply changed monikers while assigned abroad. The title was less important than the function—the U.S. government’s top cop and security official for Liberia. Since he was many years my junior, I only had known Jackson by his corridor reputation in the department. It was a solid one.
Phil Jensen was another matter altogether. We’d been contemporaries in the Diplomatic Security Service, although never directly worked together during our careers. However, we had carpooled for a number of months from the Virginia suburbs to Main State and had gotten to know one another fairly well. He had a long and distinguished career with DS having served many years overseas as a Regional Security Officer in some of the world’s hotter spots. By the way, that didn’t refer to the locales climatic conditions unless you counted the incendiary security and political situations in Lebanon and the Philippines during the tough times. Phil was retired but had returned to harness as a contractor serving as the senior security advisor overseeing the State Department’s Anti-terrorism Assistance program for Liberia. That meant he was the number one guy on the proverbial hook and responsible for professionalizing the Triple S.
Phil had two masters to satisfy in that role: the DS Anti-Terrorism Assistance Office in Washington for general policy guidance and the embassy RSO for operational matters within the country. He had to walk a fine line between the two and keep both organizations informed and content. The balancing act wasn’t always easy given the internecine battles that flared-up from time-to-time.
Sometimes those who protect and serve needed the presence of mind and a couple of ambidextrous alter-egos to cope with bureaucratic tugs-of-war and clownish juggling acts.
Phil Jensen spoke first. “Hi Avery and welcome to the bottom of the third world. Why would you volunteer to come to a shithole like this when you could be kicking-back in the real world with the drinks and the ladies? As I recall, you liked both very much and occasionally to excess.”
Phil was well aware for my penchant for wine and meaningful, casual sex. I had earned a certain reputation over the years for those weaknesses, along with a few days of unpaid leave for some of my more outrageous indiscretions. Despite my flaws, I was also universally recognized by my peers for my work ethos and tenacity as an investigator. Those qualities had saved my tenuous career and skin on more than one occasion.
“Phil, dedication and patriotism would be my first explanation, not the fact that I’m flat broke and need the money. My few virtues and many vices are getting expensive these days, my friend. Besides, I had nothing better to do and looked forward to escaping the Washington winter for awhile,” I quipped.
“Also, I haven’t seen you in about 15 years and thought it high-time to renew our acquaintanceship.”
Both laughed at my silly answer. However, the money part was absolutely true. Nothing else I’d say today would be because I’d been sworn to secrecy by Jersey Briggs. Only the ambassador and President Sirleaf had been briefed on the true purpose of my visit to Liberia via a NODIS, eyes-only cable from Washington. I didn’t care for the fact that I couldn’t reveal my mission to trusted colleagues but Jersey was adamant that I maintained cover for as long as possible to avoid any inadvertent leaks. The consequences of premature disclosure of why I was here could be disastrous for the mission and me personally. Given his logic and my innate instinct for self-preservation, I didn’t bother arguing the point.
“Avery, we received notice of your arrival from ATA and understand the purpose of your visit is to conduct a program review of the Liberian SSS operation in terms of our assistance. However, a two-person team was here less than 10 months ago and did the same thing. We came out smelling like roses. So what gives? Why’s there another review so soon?” Jackson pointedly asked.
Jackson was sharp and asked the logical question. I was sharper though and had a bullshit, but wholly logical answer.
“The reason is the Hill. The oversight committees are breathing down the backs of all government agencies providing foreign assistance to make sure Uncle Sam’s monies are being spent properly and judiciously—the old waste, fraud, mismanagement stuff again. It’s a direct result of the reported widespread abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq, not so much the nickel-and-dime programs like in Liberia and elsewhere that DS funds.”
“It’s a matter of the small fish getting caught up in Congress’s big dragnet. Regardless, DS, with its relatively modest dollars to fund the programs around the world, is on the spot. We’re required to provide a report to the Hill within 90 days on each of the programs along with a certification that each is in full compliance with set spending limits and that funds are being expended as authorized. There’s no mystery here, just more bureaucratic rigmarole.”
“But couldn’t I have done the same thing and submitted a compliance report?” Jackson retorted.
“Sure, you could have, but how much credibility would it have if challenged by the Hill staffers? Jackson, you and Phil are part and parcel of the program here and not exactly unbiased observers. Look, I’m not, nor is DS, questioning your honesty or integrity. That’s not what this is about. DS headquarters correctly concluded that both of you are much too close to the situation and that’s why an outsider must conduct the review. It’s certainly nothing personal. Similar reviews are scheduled for Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan and elsewhere. Liberia’s not being singled out for any special treatment,” I blatantly lied through my smiling teeth.
“Okay, fair enough. I’ve been around long enough to realize that logic and reason don’t often win the day in the department. Please give us a broad outline of what you plan to do and how we can help. Nothing personal Avery, but we have full plates here and can’t afford to hold hands for our visitors, even DS colleagues,” Jackson commented.
The last thing I wanted was Jackson’s or the embassy’s help. Despite local customs, I also didn’t want to hold hands with him. However, my foot was now firmly in the door but I hoped no one would abruptly slam it on me. I didn’t want to injure my reputation as a flatfoot in good standing. On-the-job injuries could sometimes be fatal in my profession.
“I anticipate working with Phil and his crew for the next few weeks. Phil, I promise not to step on your toes or get in your way. I appreciate your position because I’ve been on your end of the stick many times over the years. To get started, I’ll need some background briefings and introductions. I’ll also need a car and driver to get me around. I sure as hell won’t drive here. By the way, where can I buy cigarettes and a good bottle of wine? We all have our priorities and particular vices, don’t we?”
I didn’t get or expect an answer. I certainly didn’t bother to ask about the women because I never had any difficulty locating that commodity before. However, that last line got a little chuckle from both of them. I couldn’t tell if it was a knowing chuckle or one that suggested I couldn’t find such staples in Monrovia.
Sometimes those who protect and serve spoke in forked tongues that were tied tightly in many knots.
“Avery, this is a good time as any to give you the big picture story of the Triple S,” Phil announced.
“Its story is closely intertwined with the political history of Liberia since the ouster of the last democratically elected president, William Tolbert, in 1980. That’s a good starting point for perspective and context and one of the reasons why we’re assisting the Triple S today.”
“It’s a bloody story of coups, countercoups, plots and counterplots, bizarre juju rituals, high-level corruptions, acts of terror against the citizenry, the grossest human rights violations imaginable, personal and tribal enmities and vendettas, sociopathic and sycophantic actors of various stripes and much more. It is a tale that speaks to the disintegration of a country and society that was founded on American principles and values. Avery, please sit back for your primer on Liberian politics and subsequent civil wars that brought this country to its very knees.”
I waited for the popcorn to be served, but before Phil could begin his spiel, I asked for a brief intermission to go to the John and smoke a couple of cigarettes. I had gotten to know the embassy’s John fairly well from my previous visit in 1992. Fortunately, he hadn’t moved in the interim and I renewed his acquaintance in the nick of time.
I suspected Phil’s telling could take awhile and I wanted to satisfy my bodily needs first. I didn’t want to miss a word of what he was about to say. It sounded like the storyline would make for a good B-movie except the script was all true. However, the trailers of coming attractions were stalled in preproduction. I prayed for the sake of the country there wouldn’t be any sequels.
“William Tolbert was the last democratically elected president before the country abruptly slipped into insanity, later to be followed by chaos, war and anarchy,” Phil began. “Successive regimes led by warlords or their surrogate puppets ruled or tried to rule the nation. I say rule because govern is a much too charitable word to apply to the situation. Truthfully, rank, raw and brutal dictatorship is a much better descriptor.”
“Tolbert was ousted in a military coup in 1980 by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe backed by our Uncle Sam. Doe’s rule was characterized by corruption and brutality. More of the same was in store for Liberia in the coming years. A rebellion, led by Charles Taylor, a former Doe aide and leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, began in December 1989. The following year, Doe was assassinated by another rebel leader named Prince Johnson whose forces had temporarily taken the capital.”
“According to popular lore, the trussed Doe was taken before Johnson and forced to kneel in front of him. Johnson was sitting on the veranda of a home located on Bushrod Island sipping a cold Budweiser. Johnson repeatedly asked Doe where the government ledgers where located—the country’s bank accounts. Doe refused to tell him or didn’t know. Regardless, the encounter’s outcome was predictable. On orders, one of Johnson’s goons put a single bullet into the back of Doe’s head. As he did, Johnson reportedly quipped ‘this one’s for you, bud!’ It turned out that the sergeant had received the ultimate in corporal punishment, all accomplished in traditional, African style.”
Both Jackson and I gave a little snicker to Phil’s puns and wordplay. He had a reputation for his offbeat, politically incorrect brand of humor.
“During the mess, the Economic Community of West African States negotiated with the government and the rebel factions and attempted to restore order, but the civil war raged on. By April 1996, factional fighting by the country’s warlords had destroyed any last vestige of normalcy and civil society. After much back and forth, the civil war finally ended in 1997. Some would argue there were wars because of intermittent periods of peace and calm—mox nix to me.”
“In what was considered by international observers to be a free election, Charles Taylor won 75% of the presidential vote in July 1997. The country had next to no health care system and the capital was without electricity and running water. Taylor had also supported Sierra Leone’s brutal Revolutionary United Front in the hopes of toppling his neighbor’s government in exchange for diamonds that would enrich his personal coffers. It was always about getting money in any way, shape or form with all of these characters.”
“Keep in mind that all of the warlords in this drama funded their operations through the mining and export of the so-called blood diamonds and extorting monies from the few international companies operating in Liberia at the time—the rubber plantations, timber producers and iron ore mines.”
“But the sale of blood diamonds provided the bulk of money needed to finance and support their personal wars. The diamonds were mined in alluvial streams located in the mineral rich interiors of both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Men, women and children were forced to sift and dig by hand for these ruthless entrepreneurs. The laborers worked under the worst conditions imaginable from sunup to sunset, seven days a week in shallow, open pits. Many died from malnutrition, exhaustion, disease and sometimes lead poisoning from their guards’ rifles. The diamonds were smuggled out of the country and sold or traded for munitions on the world’s markets. It was an extremely lucrative trade and one that kept the various rebellions robustly endowed, almost indefinitely.”
“Here’s another point to remember. These wars were not ideologically or geopolitically motivated in the slightest. The foreign powers may have preferred one warlord or another for the sake of stability and peace but there was no meaningful financial or other support, overt or otherwise, to the warlords by the outsiders. The blood diamonds bought what was needed to further perfect and sustain the genocidal wars.”
“In 2002, rebels—Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy—intensified their attacks on Taylor’s government. By June 2003, LURD and other rebel groups controlled two-thirds of the country. Finally, on August 11, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. Gyude Bryant, a businessman seen as a coalition builder, was selected by the various factions as the new president. By the time he was exiled, Taylor had bankrupted his own country siphoning off $100 million. According to the New York Times, Taylor left Liberia the world’s poorest nation. In 2004, international donors promised more than $500 million in aid to shore up the country’s ailing economy. With many of these nations, the checks are still in the mail.”
“In a November 2005 presidential runoff election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who had worked at the World Bank, defeated George Weah, a former world class soccer star. In January 2006, Sirleaf became Africa’s first female president.”
I yearned for a break and a quick smoke and had difficulty hiding my discomfort given my noticeable fidgeting in the chair.
“In 2006, former president Taylor, in exile in Nigeria, was arrested and turned over to the International Court in The Hague to face trial on charges of crimes against humanity for supporting rebel troops in Sierra Leone’s and Liberia’s brutal civil wars that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people in the 1990s. Taylor initially refused to appear in court when his trial opened in June 2007. However, he subsequently changed his mind and the trial has now resumed. Don’t look for a speedy verdict because his list of crimes is very long.”
I was already well aware of this last bit of information but said nothing because I was bound to secrecy by the bureaucrats in Washington.
“Avery, here’s one, important take-away message from all of this bloody nonsense—not a single rebel leader had the slightest interest in Liberia except what the country could provide each in terms of lining their own pockets. Forget the patriotic, nationalist, liberation, democracy crap they spouted to justify their actions. It was all eyewash to cover their true motive for taking power—money, money and more money. Unbridled greed was the only personal agenda for seizing control of the country and running it into the ground.”
“The consequences for Liberia are now clearly evident. It has the highest unemployment rate of any African country, perhaps in the world. An estimated two-thirds of the people are said to suffer from posttraumatic stress from the fighting and deprivations. Critical infrastructure such as rail, electrical, telephone, water and roads has been destroyed or severely degraded. Basic health care is extremely limited or nonexistent; there are only 200 doctors to serve 3.4 million citizens. The people are still greatly suffering from the perverse, self-serving form of patriotism practiced by the rebel warlords.”
My mind was wandering and my bladder was cussing up a storm. I hoped the monologue would end soon or I might embarrass myself in front of my colleagues.
“Let me transition to the Special Security Service at this point in my monologue. You’ll hear many stories about the political situation and rebel wars while you’re here so if I missed any high spots you’ll be able to fill in the blanks. Everyone has a tale to tell because everyone in the country personally and poignantly suffered one way or another during the past fourteen years or so—and still continue to suffer. So much so that the government has convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is slowly disclosing the traumas, abuses and corruptions of the war years. By the way, its hearings are broadcast live on the one TV station and over the radio. They’re a very popular source of information and macabre form of entertainment here.”
Oh God, please hurry up, I spoke to myself.
“The Triple S has had a checkered past to put things mildly and diplomatically. It was originally established in February 1966 to provide protection to the president, vice president, other high ranking government officials and visiting foreign dignitaries—much like the U.S. Secret Service. By the way, that’s still its sole role today under President Sirleaf.”
“However, its reputation was so badly damaged during the Taylor regime that the current president has submitted legislation to change the organization’s name. The atrocities, or crimes against humanity as the United Nation call them, that were committed by the SSS under Taylor were simply too obscene and offensive to the Liberian people to let the old name stand. Sirleaf wants change and professionalism and that’s why we’re here. It’s a struggle to say the least but the U.S. is committed to giving it a shot. God only knows what will happen after we leave. Old ways die hard, especially in Liberia where violent, premature death has been a way of life for the past many years. I’ll relate only the organization’s history under Taylor since it’s critical to understanding what is facing us in mentoring and advising the SSS of today.”
That's it. I couldn't wait any longer and called for a pee break. Once relieved, the story continued apace.
“Charles Taylor was a military dictator and bully of the worst stripe. He was elected to office as the country’s president in 1997, a cruel joke perpetrated on the Liberians by themselves. One of his first acts was to take control of the SSS and fill its ranks with his loyalists and cronies. Personal safety and survival were great motivators for him in those days. Most members of the service were former fighters in his NPFL rebel group, although many were simply thugs and sociopaths of the first order. The new Palace Guard was molded in his image and shaped to carry out his will.”
“One could not resign from the organization for any reason because that suggested disloyalty and disloyalty suggested being summarily executed. One never wanted to be terminated for cause for any reason. Plots and paranoia ruled the organization’s activities in those days. The dictator had to be protected at all costs because if he fell from power his underlings would too. Falling from power meant fleeing the country or imprisonment or execution by the next regime. These things were the only options for those officials who actively supported Taylor and his abusive, corrosive rule of the country between 1997 and 2003.”
“However, Taylor’s SSS also operated outside the palace gates with impunity as a paramilitary unit. The number of agents and operatives swelled to about 1,500 at its height and served as Taylor’s personal instrument of terror that was most often directed against his own people, but later as fighters against the LURD rebel forces that vowed to topple his regime.”
My head was now swimming with recent Liberian history. There was no way I would remember all the stuff. Even abridged Cliff's Notes wouldn't likely help sort out the bad guys from the not-so bad guys in this ersatz docudrama.
“In rural areas, particularly in remote parts of Lofa and Gbarpolu counties, armed SSS agents illegally entered homes, most often to steal food, money or other property. Members of the security forces in those areas generally were paid and provisioned inadequately and often extorted money and goods from citizens. Local communities were compelled to provide food, shelter and labor for members of the forces stationed in their villages. Human Rights Watch reported that President Taylor’s SSS was also mobilized to combat LURD rebels. Again, the SSS then largely consisted of his former NPFL combatants who were paid a one-time fee of $150 and were expected to pillage for food and other basic needs thereafter.”
“I’ll spare you the gruesome details of SSS activities—there are too many emotionally wrenching, despicable acts to relate. No doubt you’ll hear many of them during your stay. They are so horrendous that I suggest you listen to them only on a strong, empty stomach after a couple glasses of wine—white Zinfandel as I remember from our earlier days in DS.”
“Suffice it to say that Taylor and some of his senior cronies are undergoing trial at the moment in The Hague’s International Court of Criminal Justice for crimes committed against humanity. Others are wanted and on the run. Others will escape justice altogether, I suspect.”
Phil didn’t realize it but he had just touched on the reason I was here—my true mission to Liberia.
“Avery, that’s a quick and very dirty history of the Liberian political situation during the past couple of decades. It’s not been a pretty picture and the country’s current snapshot is blurred and sketchy at best despite the recent election of the Iron Lady of Africa, Ellen Sirleaf.”
My digs at the Sea Suite compound were pretty plush by local standards and much better than the converted shipping container I lived in for three months while conducting a major fraud investigation for the department in Afghanistan a few years ago. I hoped the accommodations were a favorable indication of things to come. Maybe my mission to Liberia would be a cakewalk after all as Jersey Briggs had suggested. Sure, maybe I would win one of the mega lotteries in the States or finally get to shack-up with Helga and Olga, the nubile, Swedish contortionists I often fantasized about. Yeah, right, sure thing Avery. Keep on dreaming my friend if it comforts you.
More to the point, maybe I should have had my head examined before accepting the damn assignment! I was now terribly worried about what I was up against and how I might gracefully exit from this little drama with my head held high or at least still atop my shoulders. I know, I know, heavy is the head that wears the crown. However, my neck was so bowed at the moment that I couldn’t help but notice that my black wingtips needed a shine.
It had rained again throughout the night. I awakened several times by what I first thought were the sounds of gunshots very close by. I reflexively took defensive action by pulling my sheet over my head and praying that it was only a neighbor being attacked. As young agents-in-training, we had practiced this tried-and-true defensive technique over-and-over again as a security blanket and comforter in times of danger. It worked and I quickly fell back to sleep.
In the morning, I identified the attackers—pear-sized almond fruits that had fallen from the trees onto the metal roof above my bed. By the large number of shell casings lying on the ground, the act was an obvious gangbang by a bunch of out-of-control nuts. Okay, one case solved but another big one to go before I’d sleep soundly again.
Sometimes wishful thinking, misguided altruism and old-fashioned self-preservation motivated those who protect and serve.
Phil Jensen had offered to take me on a short tour of the key sites associated with SSS protective responsibilities. It didn’t take long to hook-up with him because he only lived two doors away from me at Sea Suites. Our first stop was about three miles down Tubman road, the same one that fronted the Sea Suites compound.
“Welcome to my world, Avery,” Phil greeted me with a grin as we got into his Nissan Patrol SUV and headed to President Sirleaf’s residence.
“This has been my home away from home for the past eighteen months. I have about four more to go until the current contract ends. I don’t know or care if it will be extended. In any event, that will be it for me. I’m pretty well burned-out at this point and looking forward to rejoining my family back in Virginia. Enough is enough! I’ve paid my professional dues and then some since I’ve been here.”
While chatting, Phil carefully negotiated the many road obstacles in our path—open manholes, ruts and bumps hidden by standing water, school kids darting in-and-out of traffic and the numerous walkers who used the macadam roadway for travel rather than the water-soaked, dirt shoulders. But worst of all were the small, yellow taxis, invariably Nissan Sunnys’, that would abruptly stop in the middle of the road or cut in front at the last second to snag a fare. The fact that many didn’t have working taillights and turn signals made the experience all the more challenging. I sat more upright in my seat and tightened my seatbelt a notch but Phil didn’t blink an eye at all of the happenings before us. I suspected for him it was just another, routine commute to the office.
“We’ll be arriving at the president’s compound in a couple more minutes,” Phil casually mentioned as he avoided a pothole large enough to swallow the front axle of our vehicle.
“It’s time for a shift change and you’ll get to see the SSS presidential security detail in action. Her Nibs is leaving this morning for the airport for a flight to New York to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting. Maybe we’ll tag along and check on how they handle the motorcade. We routinely do this as part of mentoring and critiquing performance.”
“Phil, remember those days when as young agents we actually looked forward to the event. It was nonstop work and partying for two weeks each year. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from the various field offices and headquarters. I also recall it was a great opportunity to get hammered and laid. Those were fantastic times.”
“Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end……” I sung in my husky, smoker’s voice. That little bit of singsong garnered a loud groan from Phil. I knew then I hadn’t lost my touch for bringing joy into other people’s lives.
“Jesus Christ! What the hell is going on?” Phil exclaimed as we pulled through the entrance to the president’s residence. Before us was the motorcade with all of the vehicles lined-up and positioned as taught. Obviously, interpersonal relations and anger management techniques were not being taught because about 30 or more SSS agents and drivers were shouting and jostling each other. It appeared that the Midnight Shift going off duty and the Day Shift coming to work were engaged in a heated argument.
“Stay in the car Avery and observe. I’m sure this little dustup will be grist for your program critique and a black eye for me and the advisors. God, talk about bad karma and timing! The president is scheduled to depart any minute,” Phil muttered as he slammed the door and ran to the commotion.
I didn’t envy Phil’s situation. He and his team didn’t supervise or manage the Triple S. The only thing he could do under the circumstances was to referee the situation as best possible. I wished I could tell him he didn’t have to worry about the incident as far as I was concerned. There would be no program review or report. That wasn’t why I was here.
I watched as one group of agents, presumably assigned to one shift, tried to physically remove the agents sitting inside the vehicles. I guessed those agents comprised the other shift, but I wasn’t sure. No one had thrown a punch or drawn a weapon but the situation was tense and might easily spin out of control.
Phil was now speaking to someone who appeared to be a senior SSS officer. I would later confirm my hunch. He was Frank Yeaten, the SSS Deputy Director for Operations, who was in command of the security details for all officials and dignitaries protected by the organization. Others soon joined them in discussion; likely the shift leaders.
After about 15 minutes or so, the situation dramatically calmed. The agents occupying all of the motorcade vehicles got out and allowed their colleagues to take charge. The departing agents and drivers didn’t look happy but it seemed they had now complied with whatever decision and order was made by their superiors. It looked like a mini crisis in discipline among the ranks had narrowly been averted at the 11th hour. Actually, it was 8:30 when the president departed for the airport. She didn’t have a clue as to what had just transpired and wouldn’t learn of the incident until well after her return to Liberia.
Phil was fuming, red in the face and highly agitated when he returned to the vehicle. I didn’t ask him what had happened. He would tell me in his good time and way when he cooled down. He had known me well enough over the years and knew he could confide in me. I would never betray his confidence or trust. I bided my time and bit my tongue while we drove to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—the temporary home to the Office of the President, the SSS and the American advisors. Phil was so pissed-off that he didn’t bother to shadow the president’s motorcade to the airport.
We parked in front of the MFA but Phil left the vehicle running to keep the air conditioning going. It was only about 9:00 am but the combination of heat and humidity was already oppressive. It was raining lightly and I didn’t mind waiting for a few minutes to let it stop. I couldn’t get used to carrying an umbrella and had forgotten mine at the apartment. Old age, I guessed. No matter, I was much too crusty to melt.
“Avery, you just got a good taste of what we’re up against here,” Phil finally spoke as he idly stared out the windshield.
“It was simply another example of the undisciplined, immature nature of the SSS—weak senior leadership and little self-discipline in the lower ranks. Effective and sustainable command and control measures within the organization are largely nonexistent or disregarded. Personal agendas, political affiliations, old friendships or vendettas, and tribal allegiances are much more important things in their society. Perhaps up to two-thirds of the force has no sense of duty or responsibility, except to themselves.”
“What you just witnessed was an argument over money—small money as it’s called here. President Sirleaf customarily hands out packets of money to the people that see her off on international trips. She’s done this since she took office and now everyone who wishes her farewell expects a handout or white envelope as they refer to it. In this case, the Midnight Shift insisted on accompanying her to the airport even though the shift had just ended. They refused to turn over the vehicles and weapons to the Day Shift. I found out that even one of the security vehicles was hidden at an adjoining compound so the oncoming shift couldn’t find it. It planned to join the motorcade on the road to the airport.”
“Okay, money was on the table and both groups were jockeying for a piece of it. Is that basically it?”
“Yep, it is, but there’s some history here. This is not the first time this has happened and it’s symptomatic of the lack of professionalism on the part of the SSS as a viable security service. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Iron Lady had walked into that mess? She would have been furious and rightly so. I can assure you she would have fired everyone present, including me.”
“But here’s the real issue. How do you instill a fundamental sense of duty and personal accountability into a people that have lived in fear, repression and economic hardship for the past generation? Now, with a true democracy, the average Liberian believes he or she has almost unlimited personal rights but they have no sense of the responsibilities that go along with them. I’m convinced it’s a direct response to the tyranny they have lived under for the past many years. Prior to 1980, most people lived in a democratic society where there was a sense of nationalism, unity, and a collective will to live in peace and harmony. No more, my friend. Everyone’s now out for themselves in making a buck any way they can and regardless of consequence. It’s really a sad comment on today’s Liberia.”
“I understand that self-interest was of paramount concern in order for people to survive in the war years. Order and discipline during those bad times were achieved by intimidation, bribery or the barrel of a gun. Whatever worked, worked back then.”
“Unfortunately, those are not options for us as advisors. We have to cajole, coerce, convince, prod, connive and sometimes capitulate to get the most basic things accomplished in terms of equipping, training and mentoring these guys.”
“Remember Avery that we’re still associated with a diplomatic security service and we have to act accordingly,” Phil mentioned while smiling. Actually, it was more of a grimace.
Minding one’s P’s & Q’s was often more important than making progress for those who sometimes protect and serve.
“There are numerous examples of significant SSS screw-ups and ineptitudes that I can cite. In retrospect, many would be hilarious if they weren’t so damn serious. All of these things add-up to a big question mark as regards the Triple S’s ability to protect the president of Liberia. And make no mistake, she takes her personal safety very seriously, as she well should. She’s made many enemies over the years in her quest to bring stability and democracy to the country. In doing so, she’s thwarted the financial and political aspirations of those who would like to return to the corrupt, personally profitable, good old days.”
“Phil, I’m curious, how much money will each of the motorcade agents and drivers likely receive?”
“About five, six bucks a head. They earn two hundred a month so I suspect that it’s big money to them. Regardless, they’re paid well by local standards. Come on, let’s get a cup of coffee and I’ll show you more of my little kingdom from Hell.”
So far, so good, I thought. I had successfully conned Phil and Jackson as to the purpose of my visit to Liberia. My cover story didn’t have to hold-up long though. I understood it was perishable and that was okay. I just needed some time to put my plan in place and see what happened. Both would soon learn why I was here and they would be royally pissed that they hadn’t been cut-in to the operation at the beginning. However, that was impossible now given the constraints I was working under.
I simply couldn’t afford to show my hand just yet. The consequences of premature disclosure or exposure would likely damage its outcome and my longevity. That wouldn’t please me one bit. I still wanted to collect my Social Security allotment to supplement my federal pension that had been halved by divorce.
But, most importantly, I had now insinuated myself into the bowels of the SSS. I was searching for one of its major turds and was now positioned in the perfect place to do so. If I had my way, he would be flushed out soon and pay for his unspeakable crimes against humanity. I’d make sure to respectfully raise the toilet seat in his honor after I finished with him.
Sometimes those who protect and serve were often motivated by a mix of patriotic, professional and peculiar desires—and scatological allusions.
“Avery, we’re located in the MFA because the government’s Executive Mansion experienced a suspicious fire about a year ago that totally gutted it. It sits empty because there’s no money to rehab it. That’s the way things work here,” Phil mentioned as we entered the foreign ministry’s only operable lift.
That was strange—they called elevators lifts in Liberia, I mused. I always thought those were the things I used in my shoes to give me more stature. I always wanted to walk tall and proud as an American should. But maybe I needed to replace my wingtips with a pair of cowboy boots for a heightened perspective. Regardless, Liberian English and customs were often difficult to comprehend as I would soon learn.
“The Office of the President and SSS occupy offices on the fifth and sixth floors. We’ve got a small office adjacent to the president’s,” Phil commented, opening its door.
“Guys, I’d like you to meet Dick Avery who’s here to conduct yet another inane review of our performance,” Phil quipped as we entered the office. “He’s not so bad for a Washington prick and retread like the rest of us.”
I was quickly introduced to George Lamont, Bill Hammond and Dan Bricknell, all retired DS agents now working under contract as security advisors. I learned that the last member of the team, Jerry Burton, was on home leave in the States. These were the folks who tried their best to professionalize a mismanaged, fractious and dysfunctional organization comprised of about 425 people.
Sure, just whip them into shape from scratch in a few months for your Uncle Sam, boys, I aimlessly thought. But make damn sure you do it while walking on eggshells so you don’t ruffle any political feathers. By the way, be careful not to foul your own nest while you’re doing it.
“Coffee, Avery?” Dan politely asked. I later learned that Dan was Phil’s butt-boy and gopher, much to the dismay of the others. I suspected that Phil rather enjoyed the subservient relationship. Voluntary servitude seemed to be in vogue for those willing to denigrate and demean their selves. Regardless, servile eunuchs, active duty or retired, were still highly prized commodities in any organizational setting.
I declined the offer because I was anxious to start my investigation, but not my program review. I didn’t waste any time getting to the bottom of the bottom line.
“I’ve already briefed Phil on the purpose of my visit and he can fill you in on the details later if you don’t mind.” I began.
“I need to be hooked-up with a car, driver and handgun. I was told in Washington those things wouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’ll give you the name of a rental place and have the SSS provide a driver to get you around,” Phil replied. “I’ll also get them to issue you a SSS identification card. That little item will give you authority to rape, pillage and plunder—also to carry a weapon and make arrests of anyone in the country without concern or probable cause. The authority’s a carryover from the old days when the SSS was a power unto itself. Only the president of Liberia could overrule its decisions and actions. Again, that’s been an issue we’ve had to contend with here—aligning its protective roles and responsibilities with internationally recognized standards of conduct. That’s President Sirleaf’s strong desire and a big part of our mission.”
“As to the handgun, we can give you a Glock 17 and a couple of magazines for your personal safety. By the way, are you still reading Soldier of Fortune and Hustler? Do you need a holster or plan to stick it down the front of your pants, as usual? Dick, be careful or you might accidentally shoot off your given name,” he chuckled.
“Speaking of accidental discharges, please don’t shoot yourself in the foot on my watch as you reputedly do from time to time. That’s too much damn paperwork for me to handle and the medical care really sucks in Liberia.”
“Oh, thanks buddy,” I sarcastically responded. “I sincerely appreciate all the help and camaraderie, my old, geezer friend—and I do mean old!” That retort brought a few small laughs from the equally small audience. I suspected Phil ran a very tight ship in terms of managing his staff and didn’t tolerate challenges to his authority. However, I may have just made a good impression with his subordinates with my little inanity.
“Good morning, Mr. Poppy. Okay, you are welcomed to Liberia, my friend.”
However, that wasn’t quite what my driver had just spoken in Liberian English, only a rough approximation. I had trouble understanding what he actually said since syllables were contracted or dropped outright in the spoken language. Moreover, words were adopted or adapted that made no sense whatsoever to outsiders. I had picked up on some of the lingo during my previous visit but I was still confounded by most of what was said in ordinary conversation. The locals would sometimes add a lilting “Oh” to the end of a phrase or sentence. It had no particular significance in a grammatical sense, just an exclamation and more gibberish to confuse the non-Liberians, I believed. If that was the intent, it worked very well indeed!
Regardless, Moses Kekula had just warmly and respectfully greeted me in his nation’s semiofficial language. I suspected I would understand more of the patois later. We shook hands ending with the customary, West African finger-snap. I could never get the hang of it but always tried just to be polite. Regardless, it was never a snap for me.
Sometimes those who protect and serve didn’t have the ear for foreign languages, patience for native tongues or any digital dexterity.
Given his last name, Moses was a native son of Liberia, not a transplanted Americo-Liberian whose predecessors had immigrated to the country in the 1800s. Johnson, Jones, Brown and Taylor were clearly names derived from their former masters in the United States. Kekula was a name from one of the country’s many indigenous tribes. It had likely been transliterated from a phonetic pronunciation in Kru, Mandingo or Vai or one of the other 20 tribal languages.
The significantly smaller number of immigrants had subdued the tribes many generations ago through bloody warfare. Cannon power turned out to be the great equalizer when it came to leveling the playing field. Liberian fodder was plentiful in those days.
Moses had more that 30 years service with the Triple S and had survived many purges during his tenure because he was merely a low-level driver who had a knack for avoiding serious accidents over the years. He was also very servile, someone who opened car doors and ran personal errands for the senior managers. His defensive driving skills, demeanor and utility to his masters had spared him from premature termination of both his employment and life.
He had seen much during his time and might serve as an excellent source of information. He had many stories to tell, I suspected.
My first stop was the SSS warehouse that housed all of the organization’s personnel records. I’d been given carte blanche to look at the files by telling Phil I wanted to review the results of the SSS recruiting and vetting process. I wanted to verify that background checks were being conducted on applicants and to confirm the documentation was complete and sufficient. Of course, this was all a big fib but a necessary one for me to access the one file I was searching for. I worryingly checked my nose for any suspicious signs of unwanted growth.
I spent the next hour or so poring over personnel files that I randomly selected from the HR file cabinets. I did this to establish credibility with the clerk who watched over me. I asked questions about the hiring process and jotted down notes to sustain the ruse. As hoped, he soon became bored and wandered off. Through him, I had learned which cabinet contained the files of former employees.
I now had the raw, paper files in my grasp of everyone who had worked for the organization since its inception in 1966. The simple plunger-lock was easy to bypass and open with a bent paperclip. It took me about ten minutes to locate the folder I was looking for because the records weren’t maintained in any order, alphabetically or otherwise. The clerk simply didn’t follow prescribed rules for proper filing. Evidently, he hadn’t learned his ABC’s or lesson on trusting nosey foreigners.
Merci Beaucoup’s personal history folder was now in my hands. If my plan worked, his hands would soon be cuffed and legs shackled as he was spirited out of the country to The Hague to stand trial for his horrendous crimes against humanity. This human monster was my quarry, my nemesis and my recurring nightmare. In any case, he was a dangerous character and I wouldn’t foolishly take him for granted. Rather, I would track him down and bring him before the bar of justice, dead or alive. Of course, I meant him.
Sometimes those who protect and serve had sticky fingers capable of withstanding the traumas of nasty paper cuts.
Thanks to Merci’s mother an abomination was born in Lofa County located along the French speaking Guinean border on June 3, 1969. She must have had a warped sense of humor to name him after an expression of civility and cordiality. She died in childbirth and wouldn’t know the monster she had delivered into the world on that fateful day. Regardless, many Liberians would come to understand the sick irony and curse his name much later—Merci Beaucoup, mammy!
Merci was born with albinism, the genetic aberration that afflicted perhaps one out of a hundred thousand people. Moreover, he was cursed or blessed by total albinism or amelanosis where the hair, skin and eyes were fully white due to the lack of melanin pigment. Unlike other African cultures, the Liberians considered Merci a novelty and a sign of good fortune from heaven. In his case, they got their directions mixed up—he was the Devil’s spawn sent directly from Hell to torment his countrymen.
Torturing small animals and sometimes other children of his village was just child’s play for the unrepentant sociopath that he was soon becoming. Young adulthood would bring him more trophies and perverse gratifications as a rebel fighter for Charles Taylor during the war. Killing, raping and mutilating people for sheer pleasure became the hallmarks of his military career and subsequent tenure as the director of the Special Security Service. Charles Taylor loved him like an older brother. Time and circumstance would reveal that the two shared much in common.
Booku became his transliterated name but he was later nicknamed No Eyes because he always wore dark-lens, wraparound sunglasses. Common folklore claimed that he didn’t have eyeballs, only empty sockets lined with diamond chips. The tiny mirrors gave him great powers to see all things clearly. The same juju allowed him to move with ease day or night with unfailing sight—a white zombie with a shaved skull who was always clothed in black from head to foot, including a black beret atop his head. He also wore a large, inverted gold cross hung on a silver chain around his neck to complete his macabre, Halloween costume.
He dressed for dramatic effect and the effect terrorized everyone who came into contact with him. The lore also suggested that if he ever removed his sunglasses and stared into someone’s eyes, the viewer would die a horrible death at his hand. He was Death personified and incarnate too. In other words, he was one over-the-top badass, scary and crazy dude! The persona suited him well for what he had in mind for Liberia.
Sometimes poor dressing skills and megalomania had to be overlooked and ignored by those who protect and serve.
Moses Kekula had been patiently waiting for me outside the records repository. He didn’t bother keeping the car running. He had long ago become accustomed to the unrelenting heat and humidity—and to the working environment in the SSS. He graciously opened my door and I stepped into the interior’s furnace. It was stifling hot and I ordered Moses to turn the AC up to full-blast. I also instructed him to turn on the air as soon as he spotted me heading for the car. I couldn’t stand the heat even though there was no kitchen to get out of at the moment.
Moses chuckled at my discomfort and had probably witnessed similar reactions with similar visitors many times over during his long career. I suspected pain and discomfort were familiar aspects of life in Liberia. One either learned to cope with the situation or leave the country. While leaving was a desirable option for many people, only very few could afford to do so. The remainder toughed-out life as best they could under the harsh conditions of climate and calamity.
“Where to my new boss man?” Moses inquired. I wanted to say any place cool but held my tongue. I was profusely sweating and not in a particularly good mood.
“Sightseeing,” I eventually replied. “I want to see all the tourist attractions Monrovia has to offer.”
That sarcastic line got another, bemused chuckle from him. Actually, I was interested in reorienting myself to the city and observing ordinary street activities. Local color didn’t get much darker than here. It was depressing blackness and gloom virtually everywhere I looked.
“Anyplace in particular?” he asked.
“No, I just want to see the changes since I was here in 1992.”
This time Moses didn’t chuckle. He must have seriously misplaced his earlier sense of humor.
Apparently, funny bones were in short supply like everything else in the country, even the humerus ones. That was because offhanded, and often disarming, jokes were regularly exchanged between the rebels and government forces during the bloody civil war. Persistent hunger led many combatants to discover that certain parts were totally tasteless. Regardless, numerous amputees could now be seen pleading for handouts on the crowded street corners of Monrovia—so much for cutting-edge, black humor these days.
My little slice of reverie was preempted by someone moseying back into my higher consciousness.
“That’s a long time and much has occurred since your last visit but none of it good, my friend. We’re much worse off now than 15 years ago. It’s hard to believe but Liberia was once a relatively prosperous, stable country. We had many international flights into and out of Roberts International in those days. We had a thriving fishing industry and municipal electricity was available in most cities in the country. Roads were built and maintained, food was plentiful and affordable, health services were very good and people got along well. It was a good life, one worth living.”
“But no more, I’m afraid those times are gone forever. No one is particularly interested in rebuilding our country. Foreign governments, especially the Chinese and Americans, are funding reconstruction projects of one kind or another, but the average Liberian could care less. That’s because we’re a traumatized, beaten people who have no hope for the future. Today’s Liberia is all about looking after one’s self first and foremost, making money and surviving long enough to spend it. The quick, easy buck is the new God for the people. Listen to casual conversations and you’ll find that money is the number one topic. The subject dominates our thoughts and actions. It’s sad but true, we don’t believe in anything else these days. We don’t dream anymore.”
I sat back and absorbed what Moses had just related. If what he mentioned was true, the Liberian people were living in a fugue state—that was neither a red nor blue one, just dark black with little hope for a brighter hue anytime soon. That might explain why Merci Beaucoup was reportedly so successful in recruiting people for his insidious cause. He was both a feared and revered figure among much of the rural populace where Charles Taylor still had wide support. Merci was someone who could rally recruits around a common goal that held appeal for many Liberians who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised over the current regime and regimen.
The lofty aims of President Sirleaf and her Unity Party were alien to those who favored a strongman to lead the country out of the chaos. They were people who were geographically and politically distant from the seat of government in Monrovia and didn’t share the president’s vision for a modern, prosperous country based on democratic ideals and principles. To them, dictatorship was a predictable, effective and preferable form of home rule. The pervasive government corruption, violent crime and deteriorating economic conditions could only be turned about through strong leadership backed by the barrel of an AK-47 rifle and the unwavering will to use it to solve the nation’s many problems.
To many, Merci Beaucoup was the right man for the job. His very peculiar, patriotic zeal and unfettered ruthlessness had been tested and affirmed many times during the country’s civil wars. Not surprisingly, he didn’t disagree with his supporters’ views of his qualifications and fitness for leadership. He had been planning a return to power for many years and was taking his role as the next president of Liberia very seriously by galvanizing the former followers of Charles Taylor to his cause.
My French was a little rusty but coup d’état were the words I was searching for in the back of my mind. I wondered why the act of overthrowing a democratically elected government sounded much less threatening and frightening when spoken in a foreign language.
Sometimes those who protect and serve preferred to safely and discreetly parse their written words in a wholly frivolous, passé lingua franca.
As I pondered, Moses pointed. We had just driven through the central business district and were now heading across the bridge to Bushrod Island. He pointed out the collapsed bridge that ran directly parallel to ours and commented that the Chinese had agreed to rebuild it. That would be a sign of progress but the people were still skeptical that it would ever be rebuilt. As we passed the Port of Monrovia, Moses mentioned it was one of the largest ports on the coast of West Africa, but in poor repair. More progress was still needed, he joked.
Shops of all description lined both sides of the four lane road that led out of the city. People were also hawking their wares on the median and at the sides of road. This activity presented another level of difficulty in terms of driving in Monrovia although Moses took all the action in stride and continued on without dropping his speed.
Honestly, most of the buildings looked like they belonged in an inner city slum. However, this location was an important commercial hub and source of imported goods. Sellers and buyers alike haggled over price amid the passing traffic. No one seemed upset in the slightest by the activity or the close calls with injury or death.
We ended our abbreviated but informative sightseeing trip at the Monrovia Brewery, home of Club beer, on the outskirts of the city. Suburbia didn’t quite describe the locale. Moses suggested a tour of the brewery, but I declined. I had to get back to my apartment to prepare for an important meeting set for early in the evening. Unfortunately, Moses had just missed out on a couple of free beers. Crying in them was likely a national pastime.
“Just about a mile further on this road is the St. Paul River. It was an important dividing line that separated Monrovia from Greater Monrovia during the wars,” he spoke while negotiating traffic.
“What’s Greater Monrovia?” I asked
“Monrovia was on this side of the river controlled by the government forces. Greater Monrovia was on the other side controlled by the rebels—the rest of the country. It was our little joke at the time. The other dividing line is located on the other side of the city, just past the Coca Cola bottling plant on the road past Paynesville,” he added for good measure and equanimity of beverages.
As we returned on the same road, he asked if I knew what Liberians called the mode of transportation of the people walking on the sides of the road. I didn’t and he couldn’t wait to tell me.
“They’re travelling by Mandingo bush taxi!” he exclaimed while laughing. “It’s a popular way of getting around these days since most people have little money to pay for a taxi or bus ride.”
I suspected he had used the line many times over with equally gullible visitors. How he could maintain a sense of humor under these conditions was beyond me. I was already depressed about what I saw and heard. I needed a drink, a couple actually—soonest!
Sometimes those who protect and serve found that Happy Hour was not always funny.
7 PM was our meeting time and the Golden Beach Bar and Restaurant was our appointed place. The American security advisors called the restaurant the Golden Fleece because of the high prices—at least high by local standards. It was a popular spot for expats and the few Liberians who could afford the prices. It was also a popular spot for the many hookers looking to score with those who could afford their prices. The food was a mix of local dishes and Western fare. The local dishes typically sat at the large semicircular bar and hoped to be selected from the ersatz menu as a takeaway dessert. I only wondered if everything was equally safe and edible at the establishment.
I had arrived early to take in the scene and to detect any indication of surveillance. I hadn’t noticed anyone or anything suspicious but it was virtually impossible to be certain. Regardless, business was good tonight but I was able to snag a table in one of the thatched cabanas on the beach. It would give us some privacy and concealment. What we had to discuss was of critical importance to our mission and Liberia. Our personal safety was at risk too and we had to be damn careful going forward. We would both have to rely on tried-and-true tradecraft to see us through what would be a tough, almost impossible task. The stakes were high and we had to succeed. Otherwise, one very troubled, potentially oil-rich nation and American ally would soon be headed by the most ruthless and vicious dictator imaginable—all thanks to a Mr. Merci Beaucoup.
I ordered a glass of white Zin, sat back and smoked a couple of cigarettes while waiting for my guest. However, guest was not an accurate word to characterize my soon-to-be relationship with her. Confidante, coconspirator, colleague and trusted partner were much better descriptors. We would need to rely on each other to succeed and survive. Backs needed to be protected as well. Simply put, our lives were in each other’s hands. Such relationships didn’t get any closer or more intimate in this business.
Mary Tambo was many things at once: a dual national with American and Liberian citizenship; a former refugee who had lived for many years in the United States with her parents during the Diaspora; a member of the Bassa tribe, an honors graduate in international relations from Smith College, a staffer with the United Nations Mission in Liberia—and an undercover operative of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Most importantly, she would be my partner.
According to her personnel folder, Mary was a trusted operative whose loyalty to the United States was beyond question—the polygraph didn’t lie. Moreover, from her photograph on file, she was a very bright young woman. In her case, bright meant light skinned. High-yellow would have been the term used several generations ago for women of such hue. It seemed that one or more white bwanas had gotten into her ancestors loincloths at some point in her lineage. Regardless, she was a very attractive woman who also happened to be extremely intelligent.
Just as I was reflecting on my partner-to-be, a voice from behind me asked: “Avery, is that a Zinfandel or ordinary blush? I can’t tell the difference given the similarity in color.”
“It’s a fine, White Zinfandel,” I gushed and blushed. I was thoroughly embarrassed that I’d missed her approach. I wondered why because my hindsight had always been 20-20 before.
“Good, order one for me. I think it’s important that we get to know each other’s tastes and vices,” she laughingly said.
“It will take you awhile to learn all of my vices, my virtues much less so. Care for a cigarette?” I asked as we shook hands.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke, other than the occasional joint. Please don’t mention that little disclosure during my next update investigation. The Washington bureaucrats don’t seem to have much tolerance or humor when it comes to such things. However, they don’t seem to care if one commits slow suicide with tobacco or alcohol, but God forbid if someone gets a nice high from weed. It doesn’t make any logical sense to me. But hey, I just work here.”
I immediately took a liking to Mary. She had a rebellious streak in her that appealed to my quirky side. She was also quick on the uptake and had a good sense of humor. Her pretty face and lithe body added to her other likeable attributes. I was entirely taken with her personality and presence. Okay, so much for the bullshit platitudes. I thought she was one very hot bitch!
“Avery, where do we start? There’s so much to discuss and do.”
“Let’s begin with what Booku is up to in the bush. You’ve been following his activities for the past six months or so and probably know more about him and his plans than anyone else in the country. Let’s start with his fleeing Liberia in 2004.”
“I’m not so sure about the knowing part because his intentions and movements are difficult to track and predict, but I’ll tell you what I do know and what I speculate. I’ll try to keep them straight so we don’t confuse the two. That could be disastrous in terms of developing a plan of action to bring him to justice—either the American or Liberian kind. As you already know, he’s a despicable monster that doesn’t deserve to live. Pardon my vehemence, but he was personally responsible for the deaths of several of my relatives and untold others during his miserable, bloody existence on this planet.”
“Merci Beaucoup, Jesus, what an ironic name for a sociopathic sadist! Yes, he fled the country right after Charles Taylor did the same. His power base was gone and he rightly feared for his life if he stayed. Rumors have it that he initially fled to Sierra Leone and then to Togo where he reportedly served as an officer in the Togolese army. There were only very sketchy reports as to his activities and whereabouts until he was first spotted in Lofa County, Liberia about a year ago.”
“Historically, Lofa was his homeland and source of protection and support. It was, and is, Taylor country where many people wish for the return of the former president to power. Beaucoup was a top lieutenant of Taylor’s and a commanding figure in his own right. With Taylor standing trial in The Hague, his many supporters have now switched allegiance to Beaucoup. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to them which one rules the country as long as it’s a strongman and favored son who’ll share the spoils of office with his loyal brethren.”
“Avery, you have to understand some things about what’s going on in this country for context and perspective. First, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s fighting an uphill battle to restore democracy and reform and rebuild the nation. While she was initially a very popular candidate for office, she is at the two year mark in her tenure. People are getting impatient waiting for her to fulfill her many campaign promises for a better life.”
“One of her first acts was a plea to all Liberians living outside the country to return home and participate in rebuilding the nation. She promised a better life for those who answered the call. Many did return but the situation isn’t any better; in many respects it’s much worse. The shortage of consumer goods coupled with inflation is one persistent problem. Rice is the main food staple for the people. The price of a 20 kilo bag of white rice has jumped almost 40 percent in the past three months alone. The salaries of the few Liberians who hold jobs have not kept pace. The increase in the cost of rice and other consumables is largely blamed on rampant government corruption and therefore the Sirleaf regime. Huge supplies of rice are donated by various nations and international relief organizations but much is diverted and sold on the black market. The people are well aware of this fact as they buy sacks of the grain with markings clearly indicating they’ve been donated by USAID or the Peoples Republic of China or whoever.”
“There’s another issue that is perhaps more pervasive and insidious, but difficult to pin down in terms of Sirleaf’s popularity. She and the majority of her Unity Party are Americo-Liberians. However, the vast majority of the populace is made up of indigenous tribesmen. The historical tensions and frictions of the past two centuries remain between the two factions. As you’re probably aware, the Americo-Liberians have been dominant in the country, holding many of the better paying jobs and key positions in government and commerce. So there’s resentment by the have-nots that plays into the equation.”
The waiter interrupted Mary’s spiel by asking if we were ready to order. We were. Mary ordered the traditional, popular Liberian/West African dishes of Fu-Fu, pepper soup and, of course, rice. I had spaghetti with Marinara sauce and a side of garlic bread. I also asked for another glass of wine to wash it down.
Admittedly, I couldn’t stand the local food since I’d witnessed the preparation of these culinary delights during my previous visit. That act alone turned me off from eating them. Fu-Fu was made from the cassava root that was placed in a small cloth sack or large sock and beaten into pulp. The juices would leech out through the cloth leaving the end product the consistency of coarse mashed potatoes.
The only variation on the theme was the gravy or sauce poured over the concoction. It could be about anything and usually was. Sweet and/or sour gravies were desirable toppings. Pepper soup consisted of a beef or chicken broth to which spicy peppers were added for desired effect. Sometimes pig’s feet, dog meat or other offal were included in the recipe for additional nutrition or comic relief. I was never certain which and I didn’t care to know. Regardless, the stuff was God awful!
Mary and I quietly ate our meals and she resumed telling her story of Merci Beaucoup and Liberian politics. I couldn’t stomach watching Mary eat her meal and stared out at the ocean the whole time. My spaghetti was actually very tasty, the wine even better.
“Where was I? That’s right, the Americo-Liberian controversy. Ever since the Sirleaf administration took power in 2006, there’s been public apprehension over the high number of government officials who reportedly hold dual Liberian, American citizenship. There’ve been heated arguments over the role of Liberian exiles who were repatriated to work for the Sirleaf-led regime. During the election of President Obama, many dual nationals were reported to have voted by absentee ballot. Most Liberians see this as evidence of a much too cozy relationship with America, especially given the prospects for huge oil revenues.”
I lit up another Marlboro Red and continued to listen.
“Moreover, there is strong resentment felt by those who stayed during the war years against those who fled the country. Those who fled are considered by many to be cowards and unpatriotic. So, now you have some idea of what President Sirleaf is up against in governing this fragile, fractious country. These obstacles don’t even include the threat from Merci Beaucoup. He’s the number one concern for the president in my opinion. He must be stopped at all costs before he can bring Sirleaf’s government down. If Sirleaf falls from power, America’s oil supply from Liberia will cease. Avery, it’s as straightforward and simple as that—no Sirleaf, no oil.”
“Mary, that’s all very interesting but we need to get back on point. Our objective is to capture or thwart Booku and, by doing so, stop his plans to destabilize and overthrow the Sirleaf government. The government corruption, the Americo-Liberian tensions, the purported nepotism and cronyism, the broken campaign promises and the privations and hardships being experienced by the people are matters internal to Liberia and outside the scope of our assignment. It’s really none of our business. Besides, we can’t deal with those things in any case. Our marching orders are narrowly defined and specific—get Merci Beaucoup and hope our efforts keep Sirleaf in power for a few more years so the United States can exploit the oil reserves sitting off the country’s coast. Tough American love and real politick in action, I would say.”
“I understand the American position but you need to understand the realities in Liberia that impact our actions and decisions. They’re interrelated to a large extent and need to be considered before going forward, as I would say. We can agree to disagree, Avery, but we need a unified approach and a solid plan of action regarding Booku. Agreed?”
“No argument here, let’s hear the rest of your intelligence collection efforts. What’s the man up to now in your opinion?”
“As I mentioned, Booku has been seen a number of times in the past few months in Liberia, mostly in Lofa County. Given the number of different sources, I believe this information is true. He’s also been spotted in different villages located in the Eastern half of the country—Taylor strongholds. He appears to be laying the groundwork for recruiting combatants and establishing several training camps. My nominal boss, the Defense Attaché at the U.S. embassy, has ordered overheads of these areas and it looks like swaths of jungle have been cleared and structures resembling barracks being erected as we speak. I’ve checked and discovered the Liberian government is not involved in such construction. Also, there’re no private sector activities in these remote areas as well. So, our tentative conclusion is that Booku is building training facilities for his soon-to-be army.”
“There’s something else that may fit into the building of training camps—weapons caches. For years, there have been rumors that Booku had collected and buried arms in the jungle for safekeeping and future use. The rumors are well known and continue to be passed along to this day. They have become rural legends, if I can use that countrified expression.”
I gave a little snicker at her punning.
“These legends say that after Taylor took power, thousands of weapons were recovered from his former combatants. The weapons—AK-47, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other munitions—were placed into 55 gallon metal drums and buried in locations only known to Booku and his boss. He did this under direct orders from Charles Taylor. The lore holds that the drums were securely sealed with lianas that had been soaked in a tar solution. When they were pliable, the cords would be fitted to the rim of the drums and the lids attached. The woody vines would eventually dry and contract, forming a tight, waterproof seal that protected the contents. Once the drums were placed into the holes, those who dug them would be shot and buried as well. Booku wanted no one but himself and Charles Taylor to know where the goodies were hidden. Two sets of maps were allegedly prepared; one for Taylor and one for himself. Neither map has been located, if they actually exist.”
“I have no clue whether the legend has any credibility but I don’t discount it as simply a folktale without some plausibility. That’s because the Liberian government has publically admitted that tens of thousands of weapons were unaccounted for and missing when the fighting finally ended.”
“Avery, there’s one more thing. Admittedly, it’s a bit sketchy and vague but I’m following it nonetheless. Merci Beaucoup may be insinuating some of his followers into Monrovia and other large cities where his support is weak. Generally speaking, Sirleaf has her strongest support and political base in the cities where the population is better educated and somewhat better off financially. The numerous government jobs that are doled out keep both her loyalists and critics alike employed and relatively prosperous or at least fairly content for the time being.”
“I’ve had one report that suggests that Booku is sending his people to the cities and ordering them to join the local Community Action Groups that operate in virtually every sub-district. The CAGs, as they’re called, are civic organizations that primarily serve as vigilantes because the law enforcement forces are so weak and ineffectual. Violent crime is probably the number one concern today for the average person. The police are so inept, corrupt and indifferent the people take justice into their own hands. Keep in mind Avery that the Liberian National Police were only rearmed in the last few months and then only special groups called the Emergency Response Units. Units is a bit of a misnomer in this instance since only 150 or so officers have been deployed to date—all in Monrovia. The country has three and a half million people—you do the math.”
“What’s intriguing about this possibility is the fact that Charles Taylor used the same ploy as a rebel leader knocking on Monrovia’s door in the 1990s. He dispatched trusted soldiers to infiltrate the CAGs, thus creating a sizeable, fifth column of loyalists. They reportedly were engaged in disinformation campaigns that included the killing of international peacekeepers and leaving articles of clothing implicating the government forces. It was an effective, diabolical strategy that further confused and frightened the people. Maybe that’s what we’re beginning to see here. Time and further intelligence reporting will tell.”
“What I don’t understand is why President Sirleaf doesn’t send the Liberian army to the Eastern counties to nip this thing in the bud. She’s got to be fully aware of what’s unfolding before her eyes. Why doesn’t she act,” I forcefully asked.
Mary laughed at my question. “She can’t is the short answer.”
“The AFL, the Armed Forces of Liberia, isn’t capable of putting up a decent fight. Like the National Police, it’s still ill-equipped and trained to take on Beaucoup. The logistics alone would make such a venture foolhardy and reckless. The Liberian National Army is presently incapable of sustained action against an adversary that has wide support in remote regions of the country. Its overly stretched supply lines could easily be interdicted and destroyed with little difficulty. It also doesn’t have the expertise to wage war as a newly-formed, green organization. Lastly, I don’t believe the army has the will to fight. It was disbanded after the civil wars and is only now being reconstituted and trained by the Americans. It’s simply not ready to engage anyone at this point.”
“By the way, the issuance of weapons is a highly charged issue given the country’s history of violence. The United Nations has unfettered control over how and when those weapons will be employed. Given the UN’s past performance around the world, I wouldn’t expect it to approve any action by the Liberian army that would rock the political boat.”
“What about the United Nations taking on Merci and his soldiers on behalf of the government of Liberia? It must have some sense as to what is going on and can see the possible results of doing nothing,” I asserted, getting more frustrated by the second.
“The United Nations Mission in Liberia’s mandate is to maintain the status quo at all costs. It mentors and advises the Liberian government on all matters of administration and governance but little more. Its peacekeeping role is limited to observing and reporting any civil disorder. It doesn’t take sides in what it views as merely internal matters of a political nature. Look, few UN troops assigned here have any real combat experience. Most have been trained in logistics, supply, civil affairs and administration. That’s virtually all they do in Liberia.”
“The vehicle checkpoints with armed UN soldiers you see on some of the roads are eyewash. Not one of the foreign contingents would lay down lives for the sake of Liberia or the Sirleaf regime. The Nigerians, in particular, have served off-and-on in Liberia for many years. They’ve witnessed a succession of wars and dictators who had no interest in the country whatsoever—other than to pad their offshore bank accounts. Do you really believe that any of them would put themselves on the line for a dysfunctional nation that has little or no interest in helping itself? I don’t think so. What’s your guess?”
I’d had enough of Mary’s dismal account of the political realities in Liberia. I was ready for bed and told her so. She didn’t take me up on my indirect proposal for sex so I decided to call it a night. I didn’t bother to order dessert, either the confectionary or carryout variety. Neither appeared that appetizing or appealing. We agreed to meet again soon since we still needed to come up with a strategy, a game plan, course of action or a wholly plausible excuse for failing in our mission.
“For Lord’s sake, Phil, this ain’t frigging Hawaii!” I shot back in response to his previous statement. “50? Are you serious?”
“Completely,” he replied to my little outburst of incredulity. “Actually, the numbers run from 50 to 54 for the SSS. 50 is the number assigned to the director. The others are designators for his four deputies.”
“The Liberian civil service system long ago assigned numbers to identify senior positions in the executive branch. The practice of referring to officials by their numbers still exists in most government departments and agencies today. It’s simply custom and a sign of respect.”
“So when I’m introduced to the director, should I call him fifty or 5-0, Dan-O?” I facetiously asked for numerical correctness. I didn’t know why I was so surprised with the fact that numbers were used because DS often did things by the number. In its case, the Hawaiian good luck sign—number one—was the most common digit flashed between colleagues in passing.
“I am pleased to meet you director Heller would be a good opening line. Thankfully, you’re not meeting Sirleaf so Your Excellency and Madam President are not on the table. Avery, I don’t why you’re so uptight over a simple courtesy call on the director. Both of us have done this bit of diplomatic shtick many times over during our careers and with much more high-profile dignitaries.”
“Yeah, I remember meeting a few queens when I conducted background checks in New York for DS, but I still don’t like the experience,” I quipped while taking a deep drag on my Marlboro.
Sometimes those who protect and serve detested protocol pretentiousness as well as forced genuflection.
Walter Heller was an Americo-Liberian who appeared to be in his mid-sixties. He was a stalwart Sirleaf supporter and trusted confidant. That’s why he was appointed to the job in the first place. Nothing else, such as experience, counted for much these days. Like many Liberians, he had sought refuge in the United States during the bad times in the country. This fact caused some resentment among the SSS rank-and-file agents that had toughed-it-out by staying—the ones who didn’t have enough money or influence to flee.
I introduced myself and shook Walter’s hand. I managed to produce a wimpy end-snap; his sounded like the sharp crack of a whip. I’d never get the hang of this little West African practice. Fortunately, he wasn’t wearing a ring so I could dispense with that little bit of protocol ritualism. However, I adamantly refused to honor his Seiko in the same manner. After all, I did have to watch out for my timeless, limited and sketchy self-esteem.
“Welcome to Liberia Mr. Avery, I hope you enjoy your visit. As you already know, we’re experiencing difficult times and appreciate the help from our American friends. By the way, Phil speaks very highly of your long experience.”
“Thank you director, it’s a pleasure to be here again,” I forced myself to reply.
Fibbing in such circumstances was a learned and valued trait in the Foreign Service. It filled in the blanks in otherwise bland, largely senseless diplomatic discourse. I had gotten fairly fluent in the lingo over the course of my career where fibbing was expected and customary, but outright lying wasn’t—unless you avoided getting caught. Regardless, plausible denial and spin counted for everything in this game of frangible wordplay—scout’s honor!
“I’ve explained to Avery where we’re at in terms of assisting the Triple S,” Phil spoke up. “The firearms and other equipment have been procured and distributed, the new SSS headquarters building is almost ready for occupancy and most of the formal training has been accomplished, although there are a couple more training courses coming up in the next few months. I expect at that point the USG will scale back our personnel and role. Our mission will largely be completed by then. I’d guess that President Sirleaf will have to petition the department and White House for us to continue maintaining a presence here. As we all know, she’s a very persuasive lady and may convince the powers to let us stay longer, perhaps to the end of her term in office. We’ll see.”
“Phil, I can confirm that the president would like the American advisors to stay as long as possible,” the director replied. “It’s not only the training and equipping of the SSS that concerns her. She is worried about her personal safety and the presence of Americans close by gives her a sense of security. While we’ve made great progress in getting rid of the bad boys in the SSS, there’s still the possibility of some rotten apples in our barrel.”
“We’re constantly looking over our shoulder and have an internal security unit that operates to identify any possible threats to her safety from within the organization. Someone on her security detail could assassinate her given his or her close proximity. It would be easy. That act could precipitate the overthrow of her administration and plunge the country into chaos. From the chaos, a strong dictator could emerge to rule our nation, just like in the past. That’s why we’re so sensitive about this possibility. It’s not only Sirleaf’s life that’s at stake, but our fledgling democracy that’s also at great risk. We aren’t being paranoid, just extremely cautious because the political environment we work in is murky at best. We must always be on guard against the insinuation of her sworn enemies into our camp. Violent coups are part of our country’s troubled past and we don’t want any future ones. Liberia can ill afford more turmoil and bloodshed. We’ve had too much of both.”
I actually empathized with the guy and his predicament. Protecting the Iron Lady of Africa carried an awesome responsibility.
“You have a tough job director and I don’t envy your position in the slightest. You have an almost impossible situation to contend with. I wish you and your nation the best of luck. More to the point, I don’t plan to make it any more difficult. As I explained to Phil and the embassy’s regional security officer, I’m here at the direction of the department to conduct a review of our government’s antiterrorism assistance program for Liberia. My role is straightforward; just check the books to make sure U.S. government funds have been properly expended. I don’t anticipate any problems knowing that Phil’s an unrelenting taskmaster when it comes to passing the buck,” I joked to break the gloomy talk of assassinations and coups.
Phil rolled his eyes at the pun but the director quickly shot back a response to my feeble attempt at levity.
“I can assure you that all monies and equipment received from your government have been judiciously spent and can be accounted for down to the last Liberian dollar, Mr. Dick. We would never buck the system or underhandedly bite the hand that feeds us, as you might say,” he laughingly quipped.
The director had a good sense of humor and enjoyed the punning. He needed every bit of joviality he could muster given his situation and the state of the country.
We exchanged pleasantries before concluding the meeting. I promised to brief the director on my findings before I left the country. He might be in for some surprises. Then again, I might be too if I weren’t damn careful or downright unlucky.
Sometimes those who protect and serve mumbled goodbyes with their tall tales tightly tucked between their legs.
“That wasn’t so bad was it, Avery? Other than your inane pun about passing the buck, I mean. But what the director didn’t mention is interesting and that bit of trivia might give you a better sense of how the Triple S is seen here as an institution—its old baggage, so to speak. The baggage isn’t very pretty, but it was fashionable for awhile. However, I suspect that Louis Vuitton would’ve cringed at the sight and left town with luggage in hand,” Phil lamely tried to pun. But in his case, it suited him, I mentally countered.
Phil and I were heading back to his office and I was about to get another primer on the SSS by the sounds of it. I badly needed a cigarette but didn’t want to interrupt his storytelling. I could tough it out though—both listening to his story and awaiting my nicotine fix. Ok Phil, let’s get this over, I anxiously thought. Ironically, I would soon learn that coffin nails were the only plentiful items in Liberia during the Taylor days.
“As you already know, a ghoul named Merci Beaucoup was the SSS director under Taylor. He’s a merciless sociopath who’s now on the run for committing crimes against humanity. During his four-year tenure, he was personally responsible for the gruesome murders of Taylor’s opponents, real or otherwise. His reputation for ruthlessness was known to every man, woman and child in this country. I suspect many people still suffer nightmares when they hear his name.”
“Mr. Beaucoup’s over-the-top ego and warped sense of humor knew few bounds. As director, he drove a black Toyota Land Cruiser with heavily tinted windows. The vehicle’s license tag read SSS-50. People would flee when he drove the streets of Monrovia, especially at night when most of his extracurricular duties were carried out. People called it the hearse or meat wagon. If someone was invited or forced inside, it was a one-way, downhill ride for the victim. He or she simply disappeared and never to be heard from again. One certainly didn’t want to hitchhike when the vehicle roamed the streets. Even the rank-and-file SSS staffers were terrified when they received an after-hours phone call from the director telling them to come into the office. Of course, he would be pleased to send his car to collect them from home.”
“On occasion, victims would reappear, certainly not alive but to serve as reminders of Beaucoup’s power and his determination to hang-on to it at all costs. At his order, SSS goons manning the security checkpoints into the city would erect ersatz drop lines using the intestines of their victims. The guts would be strung across the road and raised or lowered to allow traffic to pass or halt. Typically, the victim’s head would be stuck atop a nearby pole and prominently displayed for all to see. It served as a gruesome reminder that the SSS was an all-powerful force to be reckoned with.”
“The same goons would also gamble to pass the time. In one game, they would bet on the gender of a pregnant woman’s unborn child. Typically, two goons held the woman down while another slit her womb with a cutlass while she was still alive. By the way, people use the word cutlass to describe any sharp-bladed weapon. I guess it sounds more swashbuckling and less threatening. These guys often laughed at their bloody handiwork. However, the little object lessons in cruelty and insanity worked well on the public’s psyche. Nobody challenged the unbridled authority of Beaucoup or the SSS while Taylor was in command.”
“Given its checkered past, President Sirleaf vowed to clean house and restructure the organization from top to bottom. She’s accomplished much of that already. She brought Director Heller back from the States because he was a loyal, trusted member of her inner circle. He’s no fool and realized that public perceptions of the SSS were almost as important as real change. One of his first acts was to permanently retire Mr. Beaucoups’s Toyota and replace it with a white Nissan Patrol with the tag number SSS-1.”
“Avery, Liberians aren’t colorblind and likely would recognize the symbolism that might suggest positive change. Time will tell if it helps remove some of the organization’s stigma and stigmata. Keep in mind that things aren’t always black and white here so the jury’s still out on this one, my friend.”
I had done my due-diligence diligently by laying down a heavy smokescreen concerning the real reason for my visit to Liberia. I just hoped that no ill winds would blow in my direction before I finished my dangerous assignment to the country that God had absentmindedly forgotten. Maybe my pack-a-day habit would help protect me or at least keep the mosquitoes at bay.
I think everyone had fully swallowed my bullshit cover story. I only worried about Phil who might harbor some doubts about why I was here. He hadn’t challenged it but I had an uncomfortable suspicion that he questioned my bona fides and veracity. We had known each other for a long time and both of us had a sixth sense when it came to duplicity. That was due to our long careers in DS where dissembling behaviors were normal and expected roles for those who protected and served themselves. In any case, he had stayed mum so far. I only hoped he would keep it tightly affixed to his jacket lapel.
My rounds to spread the word of the second coming of Dick Avery to Liberia had gone well. I actually received much more information on the local situation and the SSS than I gave. It was all useful stuff to my cause because I didn’t arrive with that much skinny from Washington. But now that I had insinuated myself among the unwitting, it was time to take action against our foe, our adversary and worst nightmare, Mr. No Eyes Merci Beaucoup. I couldn’t wait to see this out-of-sight character because this wasn’t Gaza by any stretch of the imagination. No, this was blurry Liberia where everyone had to watch out for himself in order to survive.
“Ok Mary, how are we going to game this thing? My gaming skills are a little rusty because I haven’t played in awhile. More importantly, you know the local scene and personalities and I don’t. What’re we going to do first?”
Mary Tambo and I were having dinner at the Mamba Point Hotel. DS tradecraft dictated varying our restaurants and menus for our overt, clandestine meets. Trying new cuisine came in a close second to our precautions. I recalled that personal safety measures must be practiced to perfection. In my case, I believed a medium-rare steak with a dollop of Hollandaise sauce was close to perfection. I’d stake my reputation on that assertion.
The flickering candles on our table accentuated Mary’s good looks and sensuality. I noticed again what an attractive lady she was. However, I’d be careful not to gawk, at least not too much, while sitting across from her. Staring was okay but gawking was considered damn rude in my social circles. Drooling was out of the question. Of course, this was about how we spun and rationalized things in the Foreign Service. We just used interchangeable words to describe differences without distinctions. It all became routine, second nature after awhile for the seasoned, cynical professionals.
“Since we met a few days ago, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. How do we stop Booku from overthrowing Sirleaf and sending this country back to a Hell on Earth? How do we thwart his plans for a violent coup and send him packing to The Hague to stand trial for his many crimes? How do we pull it off without getting killed in the process? How’s your Crème Brule Avery?
“That’s a lot of questions but few answers. By the way, the crème was fine,” as I licked my spoon clean. But now it was time for Mary to get her own licks in and come clean. She did so without any prompting or spoon-feeding on my part.
“Here’s what I think,” she tentatively answered. “Booku is well entrenched in the far counties where he has public support and a sizeable following. I believe we should first concentrate on the immediate, proximate threats to the Sirleaf government. That would be the fifth columnists that I mentioned before. I’ve developed additional intelligence since we last met. My friends at the Liberian National Security Agency have passed along some interesting tidbits of information that they gleaned from phone records and cell call monitoring by some suspicious players in the Paynesville area that are especially worrying. It looks like the infiltration has started in earnest, I mean Paynesville,” she quipped.
I chuckled at her little bon mot. It went well with my Crème Brule.
“Avery, Paynesville is what I would guess most of us would call a suburb of Monrovia. It’s always been a largely lawless town and stronghold for Taylor sympathizers. It has a large, active Community Action Group given its high crime rate and lack of adequate police protection. The group is nominally a civic minded organization that promotes good works in Paynesville but in practice it’s a bunch of vigilantes who police the town and administer their own brand of street justice. It’s also very effective by most accounts and has popular support because of the ineffectual policing. Frankly, the police are afraid to enter Paynesville, especially at night, fearful for their own safety. Most cops in the country are not armed and risk being chopped or killed carrying out their duties to protect and serve.”
I ordered another wine to pass the time and keep me a mellow fellow.
“My sources tell me that two likely agents of Merci Beaucoup have taken up residence in one of Paynesville’s neighborhood slums and have joined the Community Action Group as members in good standing. Both of these characters are from Lofa County and one has been identified as Amos Brown, a former crony of Booku’s during his SSS tenure. Mr. Brown was also Booku’s personal bodyguard in the bad old days. Avery, his hands are dirty too. He was responsible for the deaths and tortures of several Taylor opponents. He’s one very bad actor who needs a good spanking. The other fellow hasn’t been identified yet but my friends are working on it.”
“It seems that the barbarians are now inside the gate. Mr. Booku is using the same tactic as his former boss to infiltrate Monrovia in preparation for a coup. Maybe what worked once will work again to divide and conquer Liberia. You can’t argue with success, I guess. So the control of Paynesville has great strategic value in facilitating the introduction of rebel forces into Monrovia. Remember, the highway through Paynesville is one of only two gateways to the capital.”
“The presence of these two guys represents an immediate threat to Sirleaf as I see it. Therefore, neutralizing them before they can spread disinformation and galvanize support to their cause should be our number one priority. What do you think? Avery”
After my third glass of wine I wasn’t thinking too clearly, but felt relaxed and mellow. Mary’s information seemed solid and her suggestion was wholly logical. The two bad boys were our immediate concern. Clearly, we weren’t ready to take on Booku in his own backyard yet.
“I think that’s a smart move and good start. How do define neutralize in this instance?”
“Put the two goons on ice, take them out of play. Kidnap, I mean arrest, them and have the government authorities hold them incommunicado on trumped-up charges. Such things are done here and the law can be manipulated to make it happen, more-or-less legally. I’m sure the right Liberian officials would support this action given their great anxiety about a coup. Of course, they’d have to keep it quiet because the UNMIL weenies would scream bloody murder about human rights violations. What it doesn’t understand or appreciate is the fact that the people have experienced human and civil rights abuses for the many years and much worse than what we’re proposing. One more won’t hurt if it can prevent another civil war or violent change in government. There’s been too much senseless killing and we don’t need any more.”
“Okay, I agree with the plan but how do we go about making it happen. Neither a paunchy, middle-aged white guy nor a pretty, bright young woman fit the bill as plausible undercover operatives in this situation.”
Mary laughed at my physical description of myself. It was wholly accurate but my feelings were hurt just the same. I ordered another glass of wine to assuage my emotional pain and enhance my growing buzz. I lit another Marlboro while waiting for my drink and ego to recover its equilibrium.
“Let me handle the logistics of the op. I can get the people to work the undercover part to locate and grab these guys. Patriotism and money work wonders in Liberia these days. By the by, it costs about $50 to have someone killed here. Add another $50 and they’ll throw in a nice church service and proper burial too.”
I wondered how I would claim the upcoming expenses on my voucher. I couldn’t say bribe or anything suggesting the facilitation of a crime, but I thought gratuity or stipend might work nicely for the bean counters back home. The word stipend had a particularly highbrow ring to it and could mean almost anything in government parlance. I firmly believed I’d have more buzzwords and idioms to claim before we rested on our laurels.
“Avery, I’ve done my part by coming up with our opening gambit. I think we can pull it off but I need some time to recruit the right people and set up a covert holding facility for the bad guys. But now it’s your turn to use your gray matter and figure out the next steps to bring Booku down. Once he realizes his subordinates have gone missing, he’ll be mightily pissed. He’ll quickly conclude that the Sirleaf government is now aware of his scheme and he’ll retaliate in some way.”
“His supercharged ego will allow nothing less so we have to be prepared for some blowback. He still has some informants in the capital and they’ll undoubtedly report anything on the street, no matter how seemingly insignificant. He knows Monrovia well and he’ll use all resources available to find out who was behind the kidnapping of his underlings. We’ll need to carefully watch our steps at that point. Good OPSEC practices will be the order of the day so we don’t lose our way or lives. We’ll need to be damn circumspect in terms of communicating and meeting with each other. But I’ll really miss our alfresco dinners together.”
I didn’t know who Al Fresco was but maybe he was some sort of culinary guru or restaurateur in Liberia. I didn’t want to show my ignorance so I didn’t ask. Liberian English could be so damn confusing and intimidating at times. Hell, American English could be too!
“But we need to plan for follow-up actions against him. That’s the tough part of the job. You need to come up with a strategy, a game plan soonest. Once we take his guys off the street, Booku will take-off the gloves and come after us. We need to keep him on the defensive as much as possible if we’re going to succeed. Avery, come up with an offensive plan of action. Time’s not on our side.”
Mary was spot-on in her assessment of our situation. We didn’t have much time once we moved against Booku. I would develop a course of action; come hell, high water or Merci Beaucoup. I was very adept at playing offensively.
I spent the next few days perfecting my cover story by poring over files and interviewing people who I had no interest in talking to. I also spent much time trying to come up with our next move to put Booku in his place—before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. If we had our way, he was going down to Hell’s nether land to face trials and tribulations for his unspeakable crimes against humanity.
By now, I had fully co-opted Moses Kekula into our growing team of conspirators for a righteous cause. I only hoped our efforts ended with righteous effect as well. Moses readily agreed to join us out of a strong sense of Liberian-styled patriotism and a generous U.S. government stipend. I wasn’t quite sure which one was the greater motivator. In any case, my expense report was steadily growing by the day. I was sure at some point I’d have to justify all of the costs to my masters. Given my experience with such things, I’d make sure the numbers added up correctly. Fraud was not condoned in the department. But memory loss was another matter altogether. It was a common affliction among those who protect and serve.
I instructed Moses to rent a nondescript vehicle for our extracurricular activities. It wouldn’t have been good form to be seen driving around in an official Liberian government SUV, much less one assigned to the Triple S. I told him we needed to operate in mufti—he chose an older model Toyota Camry instead. It was a bit surprising since I hadn’t explained the difference without distinction dictum to him yet. I was glad I didn’t say incognito. We could have ended up in one of those ubiquitous yellow Sunny taxis.
Moses wasn’t bright by any means but still very quick on the uptake. Regardless, he’d make an excellent U.S. citizen because he had few scruples and whatever principles he might hold could be easily compromised. However, his intestinal fortitude and moral fiber had yet to be tested and I didn’t look forward to the experience. But that would surely come later when we least expected it. He seemed okay otherwise. So far, he’d kept me in one piece through his driving skills. Moreover, his stories about life’s little quirks and ironies in Liberia kept me in stitches. Thankfully, the funny type, not the injurious ones.
Mary had been making good progress in her efforts to locate Amos Brown and his colleague in Paynesville. Actually, finding Amos was easy for her spies. He had such chutzpa that he was running for local office in the community. I guessed that chutzpa was Liberian for big stones. No matter, he was now a known quantity and relatively easy target for what we had in mind—a quick grab and run operation. Amos’s colleague was less visible and we still didn’t have a name to tag him with. No matter, Amos alone would be a rewarding, prized catch.
Our plan called for luring Amos to the SKD Stadium located on the outskirts of Paynesville. It was a large sports complex dedicated to former president Samuel K. Doe. It was also a perfect place for a snatch. Our hook was money. Through Mary’s trusted agents, we had concocted a story that some friends of Booku wanted to contribute money to his coup campaign in return for a piece of the oil rights when he took power. It was a plausible bit of bullshit that Amos would still question. He would be suspicious but would still show up for the meet. The money was just too compelling to pass up.
If his boss learned that he had blown-off a chunk of money that could further his plans, Amos would be in big trouble. He was smart enough to realize that he had to go through the motions and test the waters. However, he didn’t want to test the waters by being tied-up, gagged and thrown in the St. Paul River by Booku. Like most Liberians, he couldn’t swim a lick.
We prepared for our nocturnal adventure by carefully rehearsing our roles. I also had Moses drive me to the SKD Stadium during the day to sketch and reconnoiter the place. Moses had visited the venue many times over the years and knew the grounds like the back of his heavily creased hand. On the other hand, I only prayed we wouldn’t experience any serious wrinkles during the operation. The time of the meeting had been set for 10 p.m. sharp, meaning about 10:30 or so by Liberian standards. Godot was a popular name and timeless experience here.
Our plan called for Moses to drive us to the locale about an hour before the meet. We would position ourselves a distance away from the actual meeting spot and observe the drama, nothing more. We wanted to see the action firsthand to confirm we had our quarry handily in-hand as well. Jeez, with that mangled sentence, we might as well call this damn operation a slight-of-hand job to keep things simple!
The night watchman manning the main gate to the stadium had already been briefed and bribed. If anything went wrong, he would feign memory loss when the cops questioned him. He understood the drill because he had protected and served for many years too.
“Avery, I’m nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m still a virgin at these things,” Mary spoke for the first time as we headed for the stadium.
To be polite, I didn’t comment on her anxiety or sorry condition of her maidenhead. But I did respond to her concerns to alleviate the obvious distress she was experiencing. Maybe I could help her overcome her frigidity too.
“I’ve done similar things in the past. Of course, nothing too illegal so there’s not any reason to worry. Remember Mary, I’m from the government and here to help you,” I sarcastically replied to break the tension.
However, I didn’t mention that I had swallowed a couple of Valiums and washed them down with a glass of wine before leaving. I had mellowed-out to the point I really didn’t give a damn if we were successful or not. Besides, such trivial matters shouldn’t be discussed between overly anxious colleagues, especially one who was perpetually horny and the other persistently adverse to sexual intercourse.
“Do you realize the consequences of getting caught if things go to shit?” she replied to my earlier nonsense.
“Sure, we’re declared persona non grata and shipped home on the next flight to the States. But we both have diplomatic immunity so the authorities can’t touch us. Truthfully, I’m more concerned about the possibility of persona mortis. I still want to collect my government pension for as long as I can thumb my nose at the miserable, penny-pinching bureaucrats in Washington.”
Mary remained silent for the rest of the trip. I fully understood the angst she was experiencing because, if I lived too long, Uncle Sam might run out of money to pay her pension as well. Now that was something to really worry about!
We were waived through the stadium gate by the watchman who intentionally or inadvertently averted his eyes as we drove past. I suspected such behavior was pretty typical for those who had survived the wars. Keeping a low profile and your head lowered must have been a fairly common practice then. Actually, you could never be too careful, even these days.
Moses easily found our designated surveillance spot. Thankfully, he kept the engine and AC running. Even though it was nearly 9 p.m., it was still unbearably hot and humid. The noise from our car couldn’t be heard from a distance so we didn’t worry about being discovered by any bad or good guys. It was difficult to distinguish between the two at times.
We sat back and waited for the actors to arrive since it was almost curtain time. I hoped it wouldn’t be curtains for us, I joked to myself to relieve my stage fright. The waiting was the very worst part of the operation. We were awaiting the three agents from the National Bureau of Investigations that Mary had recruited for the job.
We were also awaiting the arrival of Amos Brown and whoever he may have hired to back him up in this little drama. It might be difficult to tell the players without a scorecard, as they say. Even without my night vision binoculars, I probably could have recognized Brown from his black and white surveillance photos, but I wouldn’t have a clue about the others. I would be virtually colorblind in addition to being clueless. Those conditions made me extremely uncomfortable and I badly needed another ciggie to calm my frayed nerves. Thank God for the curative powers of blind ignorance and strong nicotine!
We watched as a light colored sedan pulled up to the meeting place. I couldn’t make out how many occupants were inside the car but Mary confirmed they were the NBI agents she had hired. I felt much better. It was a little before 10 PM, plenty of time before we expected Amos to arrive and he likely would be late. It was expected and customary in these parts. He had to be careful to avoid all of the gangsters that were now emerging from their bolt holes in the Paynesville slums to make a dishonest living by preying on helpless citizens who were foolish enough to venture outside at this hour.
Maybe Charles Darwin would have appreciated the fitting situation. However, the local people didn’t and the Community Action Groups didn’t either. The groups wanted to be the preeminent predators on the truncated food chain. The extinction of the many bad guys was their primal goal. Only time would tell how things would devolve. Regardless, I wouldn’t bet on their long-term survival—the Community Action Groups, I meant. They were badly outnumbered and outgunned by the boys in the hood. Survival of the fittest was quickly becoming the national motto of Liberia. No worry, I was positive the phrase would sound less frightening in Latin or Liberian English.
Our wait ended with the arrival of two motorcycles that zoomed through the gate. They circled the sedan a couple of times and came to a halt on opposite sides. The pillion rider on one cycle got off and stood near the car with his hands folded over his chest. When he finally removed his crash helmet, I could clearly see it was Amos Brown. The bikers had left their engines running for a quick getaway, I guessed.
The three NBI agents got out of the car and approached Amos. After about a minute of talking, the agents took Amos down hard by grabbing him and shoving his face into the pavement. The other agent watched their backs by staring down the bikers who quickly fled the scene. That turned out to be an easy takedown, I gloated with much glee.
I jumped out of our vehicle and headed to the commotion. My Glock was safely stuffed down the front of my pants and at the ready. I probably wouldn’t need it, but what the Hell, I was a macho sort of guy and innate risk taker. Truthfully, I was scared shitless but I needed to see Amos up-close and personally. I really wanted to know who we were up against in this battle for hearts, minds and oil. Oh, and sustaining Liberian democracy too!
As I approached, I could see the NBI agents trussing-up Amos with pieces of white rope—clothesline no less. They couldn’t even afford handcuffs or flex-cuffs to properly secure him. Jeez, times really are tough, I thought. As I neared the car, I heard the loud buzz of motorcycles coming in our direction. They sounded like an angry swarm of bees whose hive had just been attacked by a witless kid who’d been blindfolded and told it was a piñata by his so-called buddies. To this day, I’ve never forgiven them for the cruel, decidedly hurtful prank.
Unlike what I first believed, these guys were no wimps. They were returning to kick some butt and I prayed it wouldn’t be the Anglo-American variety. Despite the fact I wasn’t Catholic, I still crossed myself for good luck or karma or whatever.
Sometimes those who protect and serve discovered God, religiosity and cowardice at the most inopportune times in life.
The two bikes approached us from opposite directions. The NBI agents were taken by complete surprise, obviously not expecting their return. As I looked up from my prone vantage point on the tarmac, I saw one cyclist drive past the agent who was serving as a guard and lookout. With one swoop from the biker’s machete, he decapitated the agent, not quite cleanly but enough where the agent’s severed head now drooped onto his chest. Except for the enormous amount of blood, the agent looked like he was in deep meditation with his head fully bowed. But, in truth, the guy never really had a prayer.
The other biker pulled directly up to the car. The sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun was leveled at us on the bike’s handle bar. I couldn’t gauge its size but it was an effective street sweeper at this range. He couldn’t miss or if he did there was a second round already chambered to correct any mistakes. Instinctively, I grabbed my crotch and reached down my pants to retrieve my Glock. As I pulled on its handle, it became entangled in my Jockey shorts. I couldn’t get the damn thing out to save my life! This was not only embarrassing but life threatening. I vowed to wear loose-fitting boxers in the future.
As I struggled with my gun and predicament, I heard two short bursts of automatic gunfire ring out from the direction of the nearby shrubs. I looked up and saw the shotgun toting cyclist fall without a sound to the ground. He didn’t get up and I could see why. Blood gushed from the center of his T-shirt, pooling around his still body. Whoever did this piece of wet-work was one damn fine shot. It looked as if the rounds had hit the bad guy in a tight cluster in the center of his chest. Ironically, several of the slugs went through the silkscreened red heart on the Virginia is for Lovers shirt he was wearing. Without doubt, he was an Americo-Liberian fashionista; a dead one by the looks of things.
The shooter emerged from the bushes and walked to us. Jesus, I recognized the guy! It was Frank Yeaten, the SSS Deputy Director of Operations. What the hell is going on? I wondered. Without a word, he dragged the murdered NBI agent’s body to the car’s trunk and dropped it inside along with the shotgun and M-4 assault rifle that he’d slung over his shoulder. He then helped load Amos Brown into the back seat. Next, Frank propped up the still-running motorcycle and drove off. I suspected he had just scored a trophy for a job well done. He’d certainly earned it in my selfish opinion. He left the bad guy’s body lying were it dropped. It would serve as a Liberian lesson that crime didn’t pay or that guns do kill. The machete wielding biker was long gone by now, likely to fight or flight another day.
I limped back to our car because my Glock had now retreated to one of my pant legs. Maybe if I waited long enough it would serve as an ankle gun. I quickly jumped in and ordered Moses to get the hell out of here—ASAP or sooner. We trailed the NBI vehicle out the gate and onto Tubman Avenue and got lost in traffic.
As we cruised home, I unzipped my fly and reached inside to remove my gun. Mary looked at me quizzically and began laughing. She asked if I had gotten so excited during the action that I had to relieve myself. I shot her a dirty look and explained that I was simply retrieving my weapon from its hiding spot. That’s why it was called a concealed weapon, I brusquely added for clarification.
She asked if that was what men now called the little thingamajig between their legs. Wasn’t it called a cock-up by the British, she continued to tease? It seemed I couldn’t win for losing in the conversation. I kept quiet for a change so I wouldn’t lose more face. Regardless, my Glock continued its downward trajectory. I just hoped that I wouldn’t shoot myself in the foot as Phil had earlier suggested.
Two days after our adventure most of the local rags had reported that the body of an apparent gunshot victim had been found at SKD Stadium. Most stories attributed the killing to a drug deal gone wrong. The victim was well known to the authorities as a small-time dealer and occasional armed robber. There was no sympathy expressed at the guy’s passing in any of the articles. Everyone knew that lead poisoning was a common disease (and sometime cure) in Paynesville.
All-in-all, I thought the operation went fairly well. Sure, an NBI agent had been killed in the melee and one bad boy had been permanently put down, but we had captured Amos Brown and that was our objective. Collateral damage sometimes happened in these situations but overall we did well. I always enjoyed accentuating the positive and spinning reality as circumstances and my ego required. I could consciously keep a clear conscience with the best of them.
Mary and I were told that Amos Brown was being held sub rosa in a cellar at an abandoned army barracks located between Monrovia and Roberts Field. I think that artful statement meant he was being detained under wraps. Regardless, and for some unknown reason, I still kept referring to the international airport as a field. I couldn’t help myself since names and habits tended to die hard for us geezers who protected and served in the good old days when men were men and women were glad of it.
Mary and I agreed that I would do any talking with Amos Brown. She needed to be present to hear what he had to say, if anything, but it was important that Amos not be aware that a woman with a decidedly American accent was involved in our caper. It could jeopardize her safety if Amos was lucky by escaping or wealthy enough to buy his freedom. On the latter point, we made it clear to his jailers that there was a large bonus in store for them at the end of their employment. We also made it abundantly evident that we knew where their families lived. Small carrots and big sticks were never in short supply in Liberia.
We stepped into Amos’s holding room. It was small and Spartan without air conditioning. He was blindfolded and tied to a chair behind a rather crude wooden desk. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see the situation he was in. I looked at the man with a discerning, professional eye. It appeared that he had suffered some minor injuries during the scuffle at the stadium the other night. The part of his face that was visible was badly bruised in several places and he was missing the fingernail on the pinkie of his left hand. It was healing well by the looks of it. The pair of bloody pliers lying on the table in front of him attested to the accidental nature of his injury. Shame on him for his carelessness! Subcutaneously clipping one’s nails during questioning was a nasty, inconsiderate vice that should only be done in a pinch. I didn’t bother asking his keepers to remove his trousers so I could check his balls. I was absolutely certain that he had a big set by now.
The U.S. government forbade any employee to engage in any activity that could be construed as torture. It was verboten and totally illegal. That was why Uncle Sam farmed-out its recalcitrant prisoners to friendly allies that had no similar laws, prohibitions or compunctions about the judicious application of physical and emotional measures to loosen tongues and teeth. We were simply following standard government practice with Amos. God bless America and the legal concept of political expediency!
“Amos, you haven’t cooperated with your interrogators so I’m told. They asked you questions about why you came to Paynesville, who sent you and what your plans are. We already know you’re working for Booku and he has plans to overthrow the Sirleaf government. You are one of his confidants and trusted lieutenants. I believe you know much that could help us.”
I decided not to use the line: Hi, I’m from the government and here to help you. It had never worked before and wouldn’t likely now—why bother? I thought.
“Why should I help you?” He spoke with some difficulty due to recent dental work, I supposed. “It gains me nothing,” he added.
“If I tell you what I may or may not know, Booku will kill me and my family. It won’t be a pleasant experience for any of us. Besides, my life insurance’s not paid up.”
“Why not take our offer that’s on the table, figuratively speaking. That would be a green card to the States and $25,000 in greenbacks. It’s a fair offer under the circumstances. The alternative is for us to hand you over to the Liberian government. I’m sure it would like to get its hands on you for past, youthful indiscretions. Too bad you’re not wanted by The Hague as well.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather take my chances with Booku. You never know, he may end up as President of Liberia. Stranger things have happened in this country over the years,” he laughingly said.
“By the way, whoever you are, my new, American friend, if Booku gets his hands on you, he’ll skin you alive and laugh at your pain and agony. He has no sense of humor when it comes to those who kidnap his friends. He’ll peel you like a banana, one strip of flesh at a time; maybe adding a little fire to your feet for greater comic effect and his enjoyment. He has a rich, perverted imagination and no conscience to limit his actions. You’re lucky that large stewpots have gone out of fashion in Africa. Otherwise, asshole, you’d be in a real kettle of fish,” he hotly joked.
Amos obviously had a big potty mouth given his coarse language and penchant for oversized cookware.
“Well, let’s see how you feel in a few more days as a guest at our establishment. Maybe our hospitality will change your mind,” I said as we left him to his own devices—the pliers and other instruments of not-so-friendly persuasion.
I didn’t doubt for a second what Amos said about Booku getting his hands on us. We most decidedly would die a horrible death. However, Amos may or may not have understood his fate. Regardless, whether he cooperated or not, he was a dead man sitting. He had seen the NBI agents and jailers faces. They would never let him leave the interrogation site alive. They knew what would happen to them and their families if they mistakenly released him to return to Booku. No, Amos’s body would end-up in one of the many swamps as fodder for the crocodiles and other hungry critters that inhabited the places. Nothing went to waste in Liberia these days.
I didn’t feel sorry for him in the slightest. With his many sins, he deserved what he would ultimately get. See you later gator was the best I could muster under the circumstances. He wouldn’t have a chance to say after awhile crocodile, I tearfully mused.
I finally caught up with Frank Yeaten as he left the Foreign Ministry one late afternoon. It wasn’t raining at the moment and that was good. In the two weeks I’d been here, it had rained off-and-on every day and/or night. I’d had enough of the waterworks and was thinking about home where it was freezing cold and snowing. Ok Richard, choose your poison carefully, I spoke to myself. Whether it was this or whether it was that, the weather choices basically sucked—big time. In any event, I’d hold-off on a decision to stay or go when I wasn’t so depressed and under the divisive weathers. I mentally debated such things on assignments when I was terribly bored or frightened to death. In this instance, it must’ve been my mortality acting up again.
“Frank, do you have a second?” We need to talk. Why were you at the stadium? I certainly appreciate that you saved all of our butts, but why? What are you up to and how did you learn about our operation?”
Since I was on a roll, I thought I might ask him what the meaning of life was too. I didn’t because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
Frank laughed a bit and said I asked a lot of questions for a paunchy, lilywhite foreigner wearing a not-so-fashionable safari suit in darkest Africa.
I was terribly offended by his remark and told him so. It was a leisure suit, damn it! Now I wasn’t sure I should have thanked him for saving our lives. Frankly, he had just pressed one of my haberdashery hot buttons, just like the faux pearl ones on my jacket. I wasn’t sure I could forgive him for his faux pas but, as a very special agent, I had to put my feelings aside and soldier on. That meant I’d get even for his most egregious slight later. In my profession, payback wasn’t a bitch, it was always a Dick!
“Ok, Frank, cut the crap and tell me what’s going on with the Rambo stuff. I deserve a straight answer.”
“The short answer is I was ordered to,” he replied.
“By who?” I shot back.
“By whom,” he responded. The whom is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of Liberia.”
I was stunned by what he had just said. Frank was not only a crack shot but a strict grammarian as well! The Sirleaf part was sort of interesting too.
“She briefed me on your mission and ordered me to watch your back. I’ve been shadowing you since your arrival in Monrovia. By the way, ditch the safari suit and buy a dashiki. At least then you’ll look like a normal tourist instead of something out of 1970’s sitcom.”
I was quickly taking a dislike to this most rude Liberian. But I also wondered how I’d look in a dashiki. Who knew? Maybe it would be suitable for me.
“Also your tradecraft was a bit sloppy the other night Avery. Luckily, Amos didn’t pick up on your mistakes. If he had, things might have turned out much worse.”
First it was my dress, then my speech and now my modus operandi. Was nothing sacred with this guy? My self-esteem was heading south. However, he may have had a point with the tradecraft quip. We should have been more careful. Perhaps we should have sent Amos Brown a pleasant diplomatic note from the U.S. embassy inviting him for tea and a chat. That would have been the typical Foreign Service solution for dealing with vicious thugs bent on overthrowing a democratically elected government.
Would you like another cookie Mr. Brown? They’re all half-baked in Washington, my dear.
“By the way, the president appreciates your government’s help with Booku. We don’t have the resources to put a stop to his madness. Moreover, the whole issue’s a political hot potato because Taylor still has support among the people. The Sirleaf government has to be very careful not to stir the pot too much and rile up the people that support his, or in this case, his surrogate’s return to power either legally or by force. That would be too messy and could lead to uprisings and outright civil strife. Madame President needs to walk a fine line until our institutions are strengthened and democracy is more fully embraced by the citizenry. We still have a ways to go.”
“No one other than the president knows I’m involved in this thing. She swore me to secrecy and I will respect her wish at all costs, to include my own life. You see Avery, Booku and I have some history between us and none of it is good. He tried to kill me some years ago. To make a very long story short, Booku accused me of plotting to overthrow Taylor. It was all nonsense but paranoia ruled in those days. I was an officer in the army at the time and assigned to the Monrovia barracks. One night Booku’s SSS goons paid me a visit. I was taken to the Executive Mansion and ushered into Taylor’s private suite. He was sitting on a sofa with his feet propped on a coffee table. Booku stood behind him with a smug look on his face. Taylor looked laid back and relaxed. I was wrong. He turned out to be highly agitated and angry.”
“I stood at attention while he accused me of treachery and disloyalty. The harangue went on for a full five minutes and he became more enraged with each passing one. He paced the room and delivered-up vile accusations of my complicity in some sort of plot. I didn’t have any idea how I could have ended-up before him. Like everyone else, I was very circumspect in my actions and speech when it came to Taylor. Even the slightest criticism of him or his regime could make you disappear. Someone must have passed my name out of spite or money or whatever. That’s how things worked in those days. If you didn’t like someone and wanted him permanently removed, you simply reported him to the authorities as a spy or traitor. The SSS would take things from there. There was no recourse or remorse. Torture would bring out the truth of the allegation—whatever truth was preordained by the interrogators.”
“You remember the saying about your life passing before your eyes at times like this? It’s absolutely true. I recalled key events in my past, especially the ones I wasn’t particularly proud of. I prayed for my life while standing there. I was so nervous I ended up pissing myself. The urine ran freely down the front of my uniform trousers. I peed so much that a small puddle formed at my feet.”
“Taylor started laughing at my embarrassing plight and sight. He laughed so hard that he choked at times. He then turned to Booku and said that anyone who would piss his pants didn’t have the courage to overthrown him. Sissies didn’t plot coups or standup to strong men. He then dismissed me with a derisive wave of his arm. In his mind, I wasn’t worth an execution. That would be too honorable for an obvious coward and mama’s boy who couldn’t hold his own.”
“As I left his office, he shouted that I should wear a nappy, or diaper as you Americans call them, next time I was in his presence. I was thoroughly humiliated by the experience but still alive. I preferred living to the alternative but it all depends on the size of one’s ego and bodily functions.”
“I wasn’t offered a ride back to the barracks but I did receive transfer orders the following week to a military depot in southern Liberia, close to the border with the Ivory Coast. It was considered a permanent retirement home for those who had crossed Taylor. One would be sent there, never to return. Within a few months of arriving, one would simply disappear. Of course, the official rumor mill would report that so-and-so had fled across the border to the Ivory Coast and was now living the good life. More likely, what was left of his or her body could be found washed-up on shore. ”
“I disobeyed the order knowing the consequences. Instead, I hid out in Monrovia relying on the help of close friends and relatives to get by. I laid low for the next 18 months until Taylor fled office. I remember the day he left the country since most of us were able to get our first breath of fresh air in four years. It was though a dark cloud had been lifted from us and we finally felt free. I don’t want my country to go back to those days of fear and repression. That’s why it’s so critical to put an end to Booku and/or his plot. Either option will do because we don’t have that much time I’m afraid.”
I was beginning to warm up to Frank despite his earlier, hurtful comments. He had undergone a traumatizing experience with Taylor and lived to tell the tale. But he was no sissy or mama’s boy by any means. While he might suffer from incontinence, we were on the Dark Continent at the moment so his bladder disorder didn’t make any difference to me, grammatically or geographically speaking.
“Let’s exchange cell phone numbers so we better coordinate our activities. It’s your show but I’m duty-bound to cover your ass. More importantly, I will be able to finally get some sleep instead of chasing you all around town. Call me if you want to get together. Just dial my number and hit the callback button. I’ll do the same if I need to see you. We’ll meet here at the MFA. Nobody will pay us any attention. People know about your purported assignment with the SSS and I practically live here.”
“Take care Avery and remember to buy some new threads my man,” Frank said as he headed for his car in the parking lot.
Walking the short distance to my apartment, I pondered the significance of Frank’s role in our operation and his chiding me on my poor dressing skills. I had much to think about. I guessed that my black wingtips and bruised ego would go with just about anything Liberia had to offer.
Amos Brown had kept mum. That was the word used by his minders to describe his intransigence and perhaps his stubbornness as well. Regardless, he wasn’t talking. His usefulness was quickly slipping away and he couldn’t grasp the consequences of his silence. He also couldn’t grasp the consequences of blabbing his head off. They would be one-in-the same in his case. Amos was destined to serve as a carryout meal for the black lagoons many ravenous creatures. Even his Mum wouldn’t be able to recognize her son afterwards. His remains soon would easily fit in a medium-sized, plastic Glad bag if such things were available here. Probably not since there just wasn’t that much Joy left in the country either.
However, Mama Brown would finally get her due and just reward for birthing a loathsome bastard! Jeez, hadn’t she heard about birth control or, better yet, abortion? A forcible forceps delivery in the later part of her third trimester could have worked wonders for the people of Liberia. Just yank the cancerous growth from her womb and plop it in the garbage. The village’s feral dogs would clean up the mess in short order.
Sometimes those who protect and serve gladly enjoyed using purple prose to describe sanguine events.
I wasn’t quite ready to terminate Amos’s life with extreme prejudice since he still might have some utility to us later on; maybe as a bargaining chip with Booku. Maybe he would eventually talk and reveal something useful. Maybe he could be turned into low-grade fertilizer for the grounds of Executive Mansion. Now that would be a fitting end for the piece of dung, I thought. But who really knew when all was said and done? I certainly didn’t. I freely admitted that I had shocked myself with what I had just said and almost done. Where did my little bit of largesse and altruism spring from? I wondered. Again, I was confused and totally clueless, at least until I mulled these things over in my muddled mind.
Richard, you’re going soft in the head again, my mind spoke. I mean the one above your shoulders dickhead, it immediately clarified. Get the dirty deed over with dude. Put it behind you and move on. It isn’t the worst thing you’ve done for your Uncle Sam. Do you want me to remind you of other, more coldblooded things you’ve done during your long career with DS? Let’s take a slow stroll together down memory lane my cerebral friend. No? I didn’t think so. Bite the bullet wimp and focus on the future. Much needs to be done to succeed in your mission. I can guarantee you that Mother State won’t be happy if you screw things up again. You’ll be out on your ass clipping coupons and drinking cheap bottles of wine with screw-tops if you don’t make the right decision this time. Think it over very carefully. If you have any questions, just give me a quick thought. Put your trust in me, bud. I’m from the government and here to help you!
I wasn’t so sure about what my nasty, devilish mind had just suggested. My better angels refused to come to the fore or my aid to counterbalance the mindless argument. Perhaps I’d simply forgotten to take my meds again. However, what I did know was that Amos Brown wasn’t going anywhere fast, but then again neither were we. We still needed a bold next step to counteract Booku and his insidious plans for the downtrodden people of Liberia. I was terribly worried about our prospects since it didn’t seem that either God or my psychotropic drugs were on our side at the moment.
I found out the mosquitoes were large and especially vicious in Monrovia. But Malaria wasn’t the only worry here. More to the point, I had forgotten to take my prophylactics and wear my bulletproof vest. Memory loss could be a real killer for the thoughtless and forgetful.
I had Moses drop me at the entrance to my compound after a long day of thinking-up ways to stop or at least slow down Booku. My skull session with myself left me with a huge headache. I was always mindful of my poor debating skills and could never win any side of these internal arguments. However, I had some ideas to share with Mary and get her blessing to go ahead with them. I hoped she wouldn’t laugh because they were a little bit unorthodox. Generally, orthodoxy was a desired trait in DS, Hebraic or otherwise. That was because it involved conformity, consensus and no thinking outside of the box. However, circumcision was optional for us gentiles with foreskin, unless you really screwed-up. That was when the organization’s sharp knifes came out.
As I approached the entrance, I heard a whizzing sound next to my right ear and a ping on the metal gate. As I turned around to see what was happening, I felt a slight jolt to my chest. I looked down and saw a two-inch piece of something sticking out of my breast pocket. Jesus, my box of Marlboro reds had just been attacked! More importantly, I realized that cigarette smoking had just saved my life. Who said that cancer sticks were bad for your health? The AMA should tell my story on its website to counter all of the phony medical hype. Maybe I could be a poster boy for the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company. I’d gladly work for trade.
I bent over to pick up the object that had just dropped to the ground. I carefully scanned the area behind me and saw nothing unusual. What the hell was going on? I wondered.
I gingerly collected the small objects and placed them in my nearly empty cigarette box. I suspected what they were but needed to urgently contact Frank to confirm my theory of the crime. I had his number on speed-dial and pressed the send, followed by the call-back, button. I couldn’t wait to see him. Absence and attempted murder made the heart grow fonder. Someone was out to get me and I didn’t need three guesses to figure out who or whom.
Frank avoided touching the darts and moved them around with the tip of his pen. “Do you know what these are?” he eventually asked.
“Yep, those are the things that almost killed me this afternoon.” Jeez, did Frank think I was totally naïve and ignorant at the same time about such things? Yeah, maybe he did and just maybe he was right.
“You’re right, they’re reed darts shaped and sharpened to a fine point. Luckily, you didn’t get the point. If you had, we wouldn’t be talking now.”
“My hunch is they’ve been soaked in a fast-acting poison, probably alligator gut. That’s a very popular and inexpensive potion in these parts. Usually, it’s administered as a fine powder and placed in food. In that form, the victim suffers severe gastrointestinal problems and dies within 24 hours. In your case, the poison would have immediately entered your bloodstream. You maybe had an agonizing hour or so before dying. Alligator gut is a bilious, galling way to die. I’ve witnessed its effects on several occasions and I can assure you they’re not pleasant.”
“You probably don’t know but pygmies shoot these darts from a blowgun made from a length of bamboo. It’s an accurate, effective weapon in the right hands.”
“You mean I was ambushed by a pygmy? That’s absurd!”
“Avery, the short answer is no,” Frank snickered.
Jesus, this guy was punning about my near-death experience! Was there no respect for the feelings of middle-aged, paunchy federal bureaucrats anymore? I could have gotten more sympathy from the zombie hall-walkers in Main State, damn him to Hell.
“The closest pygmy tribes are located in the rainforests of Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo, about a thousand miles from Liberia. You were the victim of a rebel tactic that was successfully employed during the wars. A number of the rebels were trained in the use of the blowgun and sent to the frontlines to quietly kill government sentries before a surprise attack. It worked well and the government troops were scared to death to stand guard.”
“Old habits and skills die hard sometimes. By the way, there’s currently no shortage of bamboo and reed in the country. These things flourished after the war because they didn’t require planting and cultivation. They just grew of their own accord. Those are perfect crops for Liberians who wouldn’t bother to plant a seed these days. We have extremely fertile land that has ideal growing conditions. Yet, we are a lazy people who wouldn’t stoop to such labor when international organizations are willing to feed us. Ask anyone, it’s true. It’s a sad commentary about my country.”
“But back to your situation, somebody is sending you a pointed message and we both know who it is. Avery, you need to keep your head down and watch your step in the future; these guys play for keeps.”
Sometimes those who protect and serve occasionally bent over and ungraciously kissed their ass goodbye.
Mary didn’t salute, at least not right away. I’d run-up my ideas on the flagpole of her credulity and she stared at several of the pennants for a long time. None were flown upside down but she was still skeptical at first. Eventually, she warmed up to most of them and even acknowledged that they might work under the circumstances. But her initial reaction wasn’t particularly cordial.
“The Wizard of Oz? What in hell are you talking about?” Mary exclaimed. “Are you out of your frigging mind?”
I purposely avoided answering her last question and pressed-on by explaining what I actually had on my mind.
“Sure, don’t you remember the scene where the Wicked Witch of the West skywrites: ‘Surrender Dorothy or die.’”
“We’re going to do something similar to Booku in order to disrupt his plans by discrediting him and disenfranchising his supporters. We’re going to mount a robust psych-op and disinformation campaign against him,” which I cackled to support my credibility.
Mary and I were sitting in my apartment at the Sea Suites and drinking our Zinfandel. I had gained her admittance to the back gate of the property by giving the guard on duty my old Timex. I would buy a new one later on Uncle Sam’s time and dime. Mostly, I could be very watchful of other people’s money.
“Okay, here are some specific suggestions. First, we carpet bomb all of Lofa County and hope we get lucky. That just might pull the rug from under his feet,” I joked to a less than rapt audience of one. Damn, I could be so amusing and foolish at the same time! And I wasn’t kidding in the slightest.
“Seriously, here’s what I think would knock him off balance and put him on the ropes at least for awhile. It wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but would slow-up and set-back his plans until we delivered the coup de grace—a sucker punch to the groin to bring him to his knees and our arms.”
“I see an escalating campaign with the following scenarios. Step one is to distribute flyers of Booku offering a reward of $100,000 for his capture—dead or alive. Dead would be preferable since it would save many hundreds of thousands of dollars in transferring him to The Hague, holding him for trial, paying his legal costs and incarcerating him in prison for a very long time. The buck would stop in Liberia if I had my way,” I racially and inadvertently punned. Well, perhaps not. Booku’s skin color was whiter than mine but I chided myself just the same for the off-color remark. But the truth was that I often couldn’t discriminate one from another since greenbacks only came in one color.
“I’m sure the world’s taxpayers would appreciate the frugality of the conundrum,” I quickly added to restore my smug superiority and assuage my White Man’s guilt complex.
“Avery, $100,000 is way too much money to offer,” Mary interrupted. “Save Uncle Sam a few bucks and only offer $25K. That’s more than enough to entice someone to turn on Booku, if we can find somebody so inclined. Remember that he still has much support in his strongholds and he’s a fearsome figure among the people.”
It appeared that Mary’s mixed blood couldn’t be held in check either. I now felt fully vindicated as well as assuaged by her comments. I lit a cigarette to assuage my nicotine craving. My vindication as a habitual smoker would have to wait another time.
“Okay, that’s fine. $25,000 it will be. I’ll arrange for the printing of the handbills and come up with some verbiage explaining why his followers should drop the dime on him. The $25K alone is a lot of dimes in my opinion. I’ll use his photograph, the one I filched from Booku’s SSS personnel file.”
“Mary, we need to setup a phone number for people to call to report Booku’s whereabouts. We need to record all incoming calls and see if any have value. In any case, we’re going to receive a shitload of them—good, bad and ugly. Your friends at the NSA should be able to establish a drop-line with the Lonestar cell phone folks. They seem to be plugged into the company so it shouldn’t be a problem.”